Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Atlantis.
Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city.
Maybe I shouldn't have nudged that meteor, John thought as he looked around his new home.
The walls were white. The floors were white. The ceiling: white. There were no corners, yet it wasn't a sphere. Finite space with seemingly infinite room. There was no noise; no drip of a leaking tap to mark the passage of time, or even the beating of his heart to remind himself of his own existence.
John Sheppard simply was, but was not.
He'd always associated an iridescent, tinkling sound with the ascended Ancients he'd met. A glowing, ethereal, holier-than-thou noise; something of substance. Yet, he heard nothing as he looked at the shimmer of his new limbs.
They kind of creeped him out.
He assumed his human form and floated down to rest on the ground, wondering how a surface that conformed to his shape could be so damned uncomfortable. Then he remembered. Prison.
Shunted to the side because he couldn't bring himself to play by their rules; couldn't stand by and just let it happen. So he'd been moved. Confined to an otherwhere: a room with a moose.
So, he sat and he stared and he waited and he thought. And after a while he came to a conclusion: One hour down, an eternity to go.
"She used to leave the lights on. All over the house. Every room," Rodney McKay groused, shining his flashlight over the walls as the group made their way down the dripping corridor. "Drove my father nuts."
Sheppard smirked and angled the light on his P-90 into the darkened alcoves and motioned the way clear to the scientists behind him, listening as Radek Zelenka commiserated only to be shut down by McKay's acid tones.
The hallways dripped and echoed and the splosh of the scientists trudging through the puddles and around the detritus of centuries of flooding made their shoes squelch in unattractive ways. Sheppard felt the splashback seep through his BDU pants and grimaced; he wasn't even supposed to be here.
He'd been finishing up a meeting with Elizabeth—inventory reports, disciplinary actions, the soul-chafing rub of monotony—and had been intending to head to the gym or the firing range with Ronon when one of the BLU's had gone off and McKay had found something running that he couldn't turn off remotely. Cue Sheppard being roped in to herd the flock through the previously unexplored area, post-haste.
Five seconds later and the transporter doors would have been closed.
Rodney probably would have taken a science team down without a military escort, if he'd had his way.
Still, listening to Zelenka and Rodney bitch each other out was amusing—"We had to live in a tent, in the dead of winter, for three months-" "You know, at least my stories relate to what we're doing,"—even if dodging Ancient throw cushions wasn't. Also on the plus side was the fact that he could keep a close eye on Rodney around the more attractive scientists. Not that Rodney noticed them—often—but it was still a good idea to protect his interests.
The bickering lasted until one of the scientists—the one Rodney referred to as "the pretty one with the perfect little..." her name was Esposito, damnit—found a door with a broken control panel.
Sheppard pushed through to stand by McKay as he opened the door.
McKay glared as Sheppard bumped his elbow. "What are you doing? I highly doubt that there are going to be any big, bad monsters hiding on the other side of the door just waiting to eat us."
"I just don't think we should take any chances, Rodney. And since when do you make assumptions about your own safety, hrm?" Sheppard rolled his eyes as he took up a stance at the door, inwardly satisfied as he heard the rest of the group shuffle away behind him.
"Because, yes, something rapidly developed gills when this section flooded however many millennia ago. Be careful how close you stand to the door; wouldn't want you to get flipperslapped." McKay's grumbling sent a titter through the group. John's eyebrow twitched.
"Flipperslapped? Just open the damned door, McKay." John glared. "Then you can turn this thing off and we can all go get some dry socks."
Someone at the back of the group cheered.
"I know that was you, Wexler!" McKay glowered, turning to hook his data pad up to the panel and finesse the door open. A whoosh of stagnant, mildewy air assaulted him as the door stuttered open with a mechanical whine.
"Stay back," John commanded tersely as he stepped into the room and swept the light in a regular pattern, checking all the blind spots before shouting an All Clear.
The group of scientists hurried in en masse, McKay and Zelenka at the head of the pack. As the group spread out through the room to take readings, McKay and Zelenka argued about the stupidity of the recently deceased Ancients powering up random pieces of equipment and machinery and leaving them to deal with the fallout and a rapidly draining ZPM, and when McKay was going to pay up for betting he could switch the machine off remotely. Sheppard took up a position a short distance away from McKay with a decent view of the entire room and kept an eye on what everyone was doing, just in case.
McKay stepped up to the biggest console and hooked up the data pad.
"Are you sure you should be going up there?" John asked warily, looking at Zelenka rather than McKay for an honest answer. Zelenka shook his head and shrugged, opening his mouth to speak, but McKay steamrolled over any answer he might have given.
"How else am I going to find out what this room does, huh? God forbid there should be anything in the Ancient database..." Rodney trailed off as he flicked some switches and twiddled some knobs. John wasn't really sure what Rodney was doing. He turned to Radek with a raised eyebrow.
"There probably is," Radek pointed out, mostly for John's benefit. Rodney had stopped listening. "We just don't have the time to-"
The console lit up with a high-pitched whir, the information flickering across the screen cutting off McKay's smugly triumphant Here we are! as effectively as he'd cut off Zelenka.
Eyes darting from console to screen and back again, McKay and Zelenka kept sniping at each other—"Double or nothing," "Oh, yeah, you're on,"—as McKay kept searching for the main power button.
Sheppard might have been lulled into a false sense of security by the rapid back and forth the pair kept up, but he cut in before they could get on a roll.
"Can we hurry this up?" he asked impatiently, trying not to shift from foot to foot; the water had seeped down his trousers and into his boots. His ankles were chafing, damnit.
"Sure, just pass me the manual and she'll be off in a jiffy." McKay snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait, we don't have a manual, so you just be quiet and let the big boys handle this, m'kay?"
John manfully resisted the urge to poke his tongue out.
"Okay, it should be around here somewhere- Oh no."
A green light glowed down at McKay on the platform, turning his features a sickly shade of chartreuse, an ominous sound filling the room as he stared up at it wide-eyed.
"Rodney!" John yelled, diving across the platform and pushing McKay out of the way as a green thread of energy shot down and wound itself around his body. John hit the platform, but the thread of light remained, tightening and conforming to his contours and making his hair stand on end. Tingles ran up and down his skin as the machine did... something to his body. He couldn't bring himself to move; whether he was too shocked to try struggling, or held in place by the light, he wasn't sure.
The console sparked, overhead lights flickering in the surge, and he had a brief hysterical thought about rubber soled shoes as the thread of light surrounding him disengaged with a crackling bang and the entire room fell into darkness.
Nobody moved in the resulting silence. Drips kept dripping and the echo of the final bang felt like a physical presence in the room, until suddenly everything was thrown into fast forward.
"Rodney, what just happened?" Radek asked as Rodney scrambled to his knees and checked John's pulse, the lights slowly returning with a wan glow and sickly hum.
"I don't kn- I- Joh- Sheppard? Colonel, can you hear me?" Rodney asked close to Sheppard's ear, hand pressed lightly to his neck; fingers pressed to the pulse point, thumb stroking carefully behind John's ear. His touch was hesitant, not wanting to roll him over in case the injuries were more extensive than they looked, yet seeming to need the touch to ground himself.
"I can hear you." John pushed himself up and rolled into a sitting position, shaking his head and blinking into the dimness. He grimaced at the way his abdomen felt tight and his head rang from the sudden thump to the ground. Who knew what had happened with the Ancient machine; his insides could have been liquefied for all John knew.
"Don't move. Someone call Beckett." Rodney stroked down Sheppard's neck and let his hand rest on Sheppard's shoulder and used the other to open Sheppard's eyes wider to check the pupils.
"Do I look like I have a head injury, McKay?" John swiped at Rodney's hand to get it away from his face.
"Do you really want me to answer that, Colonel?"
"Just help me up, Rodney. I'm fine." John held his hand out and waited for Rodney to help haul him to his feet. Rodney didn't let go when he was finally upright, instead searching his face for any sign of discomfort.
"Are you sure?" He asked quietly, ignoring the rest of the gawking scientists in the room.
"I'm sure." John conceded, squeezing Rodney's hand and patting his shoulder. "How's the machine-y thing looking? All shut down?"
"Machine-y thing?" Rodney gave Sheppard a withering look. "There are no more energy readings coming from it, so, yes. It looks shut down. The hard part's going to be getting it going again; I think you fried its circuits."
"What? No. No way you're starting this thing up again. One person whipped by a beam of green light is more than enough."
"Don't be stupid. We need to find out what it did to you."
John set his shoulders and clenched his teeth as he stepped past Rodney towards the corridor, addressing the room in a louder voice. "The machine is pretty much shut down now. I'm ordering this section off limits to unauthorised personnel until further notice; everyone out."
A glare settled onto Rodney's features as he stalked over to John by the door.
"You can't do that; this comes under Science's jurisdiction," McKay snapped, but didn't stop anyone from leaving.
"Until the safety and structural integrity of the area can be verified, I can." John's lips settled into a thin line, daring McKay to argue. "The sooner everyone's out, the sooner I can get Beckett to make sure my insides haven't been turned into goop. Move it, people." John waved his arm in the universal 'get out' motion and followed the stragglers through, hoping that the churning in his guts was a delayed reaction to the mystery meat in the mess.
"Seal it off, McKay." John said as he stopped outside the door. "The only people going in here are you, Zelenka, and one of your structural engineers, with me or a marine escort. You hear me?"
McKay's mouth flapped exasperatedly as he came up with a dozen aborted arguments before finally acknowledging the flint in Sheppard's eyes and slumping.
"I hear you," McKay grumbled quietly, hooking up the data pad again and locking the door manually. "Now, are you going to go to the infirmary, or do I have to get Elizabeth to pull rank?"
Rodney tried not to fret as Beckett ran John under the scanners, retreating into acidic words and biting commentary to mask his worry. He stood to the side as he waited, making a show of going over the readings from The Incident—as he'd taken to terming it—while waiting for the results and casting sidelong glances in John's direction to make sure he hadn't dissolved, or worse, while his attention was elsewhere. Elizabeth arrived towards the end and waited as Beckett finished up.
"As far as I can tell, he's fine," Beckett told them, shrugging as he gestured to a infuriatingly smug Sheppard.
"Told you," Sheppard said as he kicked his feet against the baseboard of the infirmary bed like an oversized four year-old.
"He was hit by an energy pulse. How can that possibly be fine?" Rodney sputtered, the memory of the green rope of energy wrapping around Sheppard's body still fresh at the forefront of his mind. He gripped his tablet tighter.
"I've run every test I can: blood work, MRIs, X-Rays, the lot." Becket protested. "I found no anomalies in any of the results."
"One more time," Rodney snapped irritably, glaring at both Beckett's and Sheppard's seemingly blasé reactions. "Mysterious energy pulse from a device created by the Ancients. I mean, who knows what long term effects he could be in for." That got Sheppard's attention. "Gross mutation, giantism, invisibility..."
"Invisibility? That'd be cool." Sheppard piped up, looking entirely too excited at the prospect.
"What? Last time I turned into a bug," Sheppard responded in a what-can-you-do tone. Rodney narrowed his eyes in disbelief, taking a deep breath to start on the mother of all rants.
"Alright!" Beckett cut in before Rodney could get a real froth up. "Like I said, as far as I can tell, he's healthy as a horse. I'm clearing him for active duty. Colonel, you're free to go."
Rodney's eyes bugged out as he began to sputter. There was no way—no chance, none at all, zip, nada, bupkiss, a snowflake's hope in hell—that he was going to let them be so nonchalant about Sheppard's—and everyone's!—health and safety.
"Are you insane?!" He exploded at Beckett before turning to Elizabeth. "Look, he needs to be put under guard. Who knows what he could become!"
"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, Rodney," Sheppard drawled, pushing off the bed and smoothing down the seat of his pants.
"What are the chances of finding a device to make Rodney more pleasant?" Elizabeth cut in, earning a glare from Rodney, and a twitch of the lips from both Beckett and Sheppard.
"Oh thank you," Rodney snapped. "Just undermine me in front of everyone. Next time-"
"Rodney can keep an eye on me," Sheppard interrupted, stopping Rodney's rant before it could go anywhere and steering the conversation back on course. Nodding to both Beckett and Elizabeth, he stepped past them and clapped Rodney on the shoulder.
Rodney scowled; knowing his luck, Sheppard would mutate into a giant, steaming blob of flesh-dissolving goop and his eyes would be the first victims. Followed by his brain.
"Thank you, John. Inform me if there's any change. All of you." Elizabeth departed with little fanfare, leaving John rocking on his heels with a bland expression on his face.
"Thanks, Doc." John waved at Carson and turned to leave the room, calling over his shoulder. "C'mon, Rodney. You better follow while you can still see me."
Rodney sighed heavily and wiped the sweat from his brow. The answer was here; he just had to find it. His shoulder thumped into the console as he shifted, sending an avalanche of equipment to the floor with repetitive clanks, and Rodney swore ferociously into the sudden silence that followed.
He still couldn't believe it. He refused to. It had been six days since... since... it happened, a flash of light and an empty infirmary bed, but Rodney still couldn't bring himself to stop trying to find an answer.
He'd scoured the database before it all hit the fan, searching vainly for something—anything—that would stop all of this and reset them back to the way they had been. He'd wanted to stop John's awkward attempts at rationalisation, and his bizarrely self-destructive efforts to make amends. Rodney had searched and he'd strived and he'd hypothesised and he'd cut his sleeping hours back to the bare minimum. He'd begged Carson for drugs, but had been brought up short.
All he'd wanted to do was fix his mistake: if he hadn't run in so damn headstrong and sure, John mightn't have had to sacrifice himself in the first place. Maybe if he'd held fast, stood firm, John wouldn't have been able to shove him out of the way and get caught in his place. Maybe John would have fallen out of the machine and he'd be okay.
Or maybe we'd both be gone now, a pessimistic voice in the back of his mind filled in.
With a venom he didn't know he could still produce in his exhausted state, Rodney reached for the nearest item—a socket wrench, what use was a fucking socket wrench in a flying alien city—and hurled it across the room, taking grim satisfaction in the thump and crash it made as it hit one of the Ancients' stupid, uncomfortable chairs and careened off into a dark corner.
He scrubbed his hands over his face wearily, resisting the urge to break into hysterical laughter and sit there giggling until they came to strap him up in a straitjacket and lock him away. He just had to find a new angle; one tiny thing could blow it all open and then he'd have the answers.
He refused to think of what he'd do when he had those answers. All he knew was that he needed to find it, to know that there was an alternative.
And then maybe Sheppard would come back to them. Once Rodney proved that he hadn't failed him on purpose.
"Rodney, get up." The Czech accent was soft in his ear, bringing him back from the precipice once again. "I do not think it is healthy, the amount of time you are spending down here. You must realise there is nothing to be gained in finding the answers you seek." Radek pressed a cup of coffee into Rodney's shaking hands, squeezing his shoulder gently.
"I need to know, Radek." Rodney admitted softly, inwardly cursing his moment of weakness.
"I know you do, Rodney. But, forgive me for saying; you have time to find out, now. The city and its people need you, too." Radek sounded as tired as Rodney felt; he couldn't even begin to fathom what everyone else was feeling, too caught up in his own tempest, as it were. Though, he did have a small inkling of what it must be like for them: losing Sheppard to the machine, and then losing Rodney to its machinations.
He'd seen the tired eyes of Elizabeth and Teyla when they'd brought him food, and tried to offer him comfort and draw him back to the 'real' world, or what passed for it. He'd seen the way Ronon would stand for hours in the doorway, silently watching him, guarding him. Carson and Radek, too, had each taken time to sit with him while he went over and over the schematics, pulling apart pieces of the machine and putting them back together, arguing with them when they tried to help and cutting them down when they tried to make him stop.
"I can't-" Rodney drew in a deep breath. "I can't just let it go. He can't have died in vain... I can't let my fuck up be the last page in his book."
Rodney deflated. There, the truth was out. He looked up at Radek pleadingly, seeing understanding filtered back through the frameless glasses perched on the bridge of Radek's nose.
"It will not be, Rodney. But if you do not rest, it might be the last page in yours. Come, you need sleep. Answers will still be waiting to be found in the morning." Radek patted Rodney on the shoulder and waited for him to stand up.
"You're a good friend, Radek." Rodney said as he hauled himself off the floor. "You're a brilliant scientist and a decent human being, and you should not have had to endure the kind of abuse that you have taken from me in the past two years."
"Be quiet, Rodney," Radek murmured as he guided Rodney out the door.
"I hope that you can find a way to forgive me for all the things I've said and done to you." Rodney continued, ignoring Radek's protest. "You deserve much better than that."
"If you continue in this manner, I will have Carson lock you up in straitjacket until you are you again." Radek continued to guide Rodney—so tired he was stumbling over his own feet every few steps—and aimed them towards the transporter. "You do not need forgiveness, Rodney. What you need is sleep."
The transporter doors closed and, when they opened again, they were in Rodney's hall. Radek continued to angle them towards Rodney's quarters, and then gave him a gentle shove when the door opened.
"Rest, Rodney. Things will be much clearer in the morning."
Radek waved a goodnight and left, a little unsteady on his feet, but nowhere near as bad as Rodney.
Rodney swayed slightly in the middle of the room. He'd barely seen the inside of it since the day John di- left. Ascended.
He stared around the room in a daze, barely recognising half the items strewn about the place; the clothes on the floor all looked the same and the testamurs on the wall meant nothing. His bed—unmade and messy with the sheets and blankets half on the floor—looked less than inviting in the cold light of the room. It was just a place to close your eyes for eight hours, or five, or three, or none; nothing more.
Rodney turned on his heel and walked out the door.
Five minutes later, he was standing in front of John's door. Looking around to make sure nobody was watching, he hurried in and sat amidst the meaningless tokens of John's existence. Johnny Cash glared down at him from the wall; the guitar John never played leaned against a chair. It was all so very... John.
Rodney sat on the bed and stared for he-didn't-know-how-long, resisting the urge to reach out and touch each individual thing for some proof that John had been here at all.
He'd fought them, fought them all, when they'd told him they were going to pack up John's things and ship them back to Earth. They said something about a brother, but Rodney was adamant that John would be back. They had no body, they'd seen the golden, swirling tentacles; John was MIA, and that was the end of it.
It wasn't, but they didn't get rid of John's stuff.
With a bone-weary sigh, Rodney lay back on the bed, pulling the blankets close to him and inhaling the mixed scent of them that surrounded. How long would it be before John's scent was gone, replaced wholly by the stench of Rodney's desperation?
Rodney couldn't bring himself to theorise, pushing the thoughts away as he fell into a fitful sleep. He'd think about it—maybe—in the morning.
"Okay, I'm sorry." John yelled into the white void. "You can let me out now." His voice was absorbed into the walls, no echo bouncing back. He walked the perimeter, fingers trailing along the wall behind him.
All sensation in the room was dull; touch didn't have the same impact, no tingles, shivers, or bumps; sound was muted like a forlorn trumpet player playing through concrete. And there was nothing to smell, so there were no smells at all. There was just the bright, piercing light, filling his sight and making the effort of conscientious thought feel like wading through molasses on a cool day. Sensory deprivation and overload threw his perceptions out of whack, leaving him feeling confused and off-balance.
"You can't keep me in here forever," John shouted, ignoring the voice in the back of his mind that said yes, they really can. "You can just let me out and I promise not to change the trajectory of any more asteroids... meteorites... whatever you want to call them."
He distracted himself for a few hours—maybe days, he couldn't keep track of time in here—with push-ups, and when that got old, he slept or stared at the wall.
He dedicated himself to perfecting the katas Teyla had taught him and told himself that he'd find a way out. He told himself stories of McKay tearing the universe apart atom by atom to find him and bring him back safely. He imagined Ronon aiming his gun—set to kill—in the face of the first Ancient they found and Teyla training her P-90 on them as she calmly and diplomatically demanded answers.
He didn't tell himself how absurd the stories were.
When he started to feel himself losing it, he did more push-ups, ignoring the way his muscles didn't burn and strain with the effort and didn't leave him feeling any less agitated. He tried not to think at all when he was working out, but when he did, he wondered if he had a jailer, and whether or not he'd have a chance at overpowering them.
He trusted that McKay would find him and save him. All he had to do was believe.
"What are you saying?" McKay's voice, coming from the recesses of the Ancient console, had an exhausted quality to it; too much adrenalin and not enough sleep.
John, deep in his thirty-second riveting game of solitaire, had been listening to McKay and Zelenka bicker over whose fault the explosion had been for half an hour. The structural engineer—Sangozi—had been and gone, muttering in a thick Italian accent that it was a waste of his time inspecting perfectly solid rooms. John had briefly (very briefly, ten minutes of briefly) entertained the idea of McKay bawling everyone out in that accent but had to stop when his snickering distracted the pair from their work.
"That you were showing off." Zelenka bustled between a panel set into the wall on one side of the room, and a tray of crystals beside John's position against the wall. "Normally, if Dr. Esposito weren't around, I doubt you would have been as reckless as you were."
John's ears pricked at that. He knew he had little to worry about—the fact that it was he, himself, providing the distraction was not worthy of mentioning—but, still, he'd seen McKay's attempts at cover-flirting and they were... painful, to say the least
"Are you insane?" McKay's voice echoed hollowly across the room and John felt his gut clench.
"Which," John cleared his throat and moved the seven of diamonds to the eight of clubs. "Which one's Esposito?"
"The, ah, the long dark hair..." Zelenka supplied.
"Oh, right..." John pointedly didn't look in Rodney's direction. "The one with the perfect little-"
"Would you mind?" Rodney snapped, cutting John off as he turned to face him with a disgruntled expression. "We're trying work here."
"For the record," John responded, eyes flinty. "I was going to say smile."
"Sure you were." The 'Kirk' was implied, if not inherent, though Rodney's mouth quirked a little at the jealousy he no doubt saw. "What have you got?"
Rodney hauled himself upright, still hunched over and groaning from the strain of being curled up under the machine for so long. John watched as he hobbled across the room to join Zelenka.
"Nothing. Whatever you did fried all the conduits to the room." Zelenka muttered.
"Whatever I did?" Rodney looked stricken, eyes darting to John and away; but in the split second that their eyes met, John could see the weight of the situation settling heavily on McKay's shoulders, the light dimming in his eyes and the guilt washing over him like a tsunami. The little detail that nothing bizarre had happened to John at all seemed to skip his attention. As fast as it appeared, the expression was gone.
McKay's shoulders set and, lifting his chin in determination, he spoke rapidly with all the back-pedalling of a boy caught looking at his dad's porno magazines. "Look, up until very recently this lab was entirely under water, quite possibly for over ten thousand years." Rodney's babble took on a determined, mulish tone. "How is that my fault?"
"Well," Radek conceded, "that part of it isn't."
John watched the back and forth between McKay and Zelenka with something verging on interest. Mostly, he was kind of hungry.
Putting the tablet down on the bench, he wiped his sweaty palms off against his pants with a quiet slap. "Okay. I'm going for lunch."
McKay and Zelenka blinked at him as if they'd forgotten he was there.
"Wait, what? What happened to not being here without a military escort?" McKay bitched, hand resting on a cocked hip, derision writ clear upon his face.
"Sangozi checked the place out, it's stable. There are no 10,000 year-old mutant fish hiding in the alcoves waiting to suck the plasma from your eyeballs, and Rodriguez and Schuffner are outside the doors staring at an incredibly boring, damp corridor. As long as you don't activate the machine thing again, I think you're pretty well safe here." John shrugged.
It wasn't just that he was bored, per se, but there really were no imminent threats to their safety, here. There was just the console, and a couple of outlets in the wall, all of which had had their covers pried off; there were no exits other than the door they came through, and the ventilation grates were sealed tight.
"Well, fine." McKay huffed, gathering up his data pad to continue his work.
"Don't make a liar of me, you two." John called over his shoulder as he waved to Zelenka and ambled out toward the transporter.
Twenty minutes later, John was halfway through his tray and considering going back for seconds. He didn't normally eat that much, but he put it down to running further than usual with Ronon that morning coupled with the adrenalin of the rest of the day's excitement pumping through his system, burning more calories than he usually did. Or something.
"How's he doing?"
John's ears pricked at the sound of Teyla's voice. She must have entered the mess after he did, but he couldn't see her anywhere nearby.
"As well as to be expected for someone who doesn't think anything's wrong."
He frowned as Rodney's voice answered; he'd thought Rodney would still be working on the machine.
"You sure? He looks like he's going to eat himself into a coma."
Ronon, too? He glanced around the nearby tables for his teammates; he couldn't see them.
"Huh. You're right. Maybe he's given up his manorexia for the dazzling lights of bulimia... Wait, you don't think he's actually bulimic, do you? I mean, I'm sure I would know if he was, but he hides things well and that's a lot of food that would be going to wast- ow!"
"Rodney! I am sure John is not bulimic."
He checked the table for a speaker or any other audio equipment. If this was someone's idea of a prank, it was, seriously, lame.
"Maybe he's just eating away his loneliness..."
Of all the... John stood up suddenly, spinning three-sixty to look for his team. When he spotted them he stopped, stunned. All the way on the other side of the mess, clustered in a small group by the wall and glancing over at him in a not particularly subtle manner, were his team; a good forty feet away. He blinked, and glanced around the room, wondering how he'd never noticed the tricks the acoustics played before.
Setting his shoulders, he stalked across the room to confront his team.
"Hey, guys! Nice of you to join me." He began with the fakest smile he could muster up. McKay opened his mouth to speak, but John cut him off. "One: I am not anorexic, manorexic, or bulimic. I have a high metabolism and," he angled his gaze directly at Rodney. "I get plenty of regular exercise. Two," he swivelled towards Ronon. "I am not lonely. I-"
"Colonel Sheppard, please have your team report to the Control Room immediately. Colonel Sheppard." A voice over the PA interrupted him mid rant.
He frowned at his team and jerked his head for them to follow him.
He was mildly disappointed. Rodney usually got the good diatribes. It would figure that, just when he'd built himself up to one, he'd be interrupted.
The trip from the mess to the control room was taken at a fast clip, John striding out in front purposefully leading the way. He could hear McKay whispering frantically to Teyla and Ronon, but could only hear their hissed dismissals in return.
The control room was abuzz with the news of a distress call from Lorne requesting backup. Within fifteen minutes, he found himself offworld and pinned down in a copse of trees in the middle of a bright meadow with his team, Lorne's team and squad of marines. They had only been able to get the jumper close enough to make a break for the trees; there was no way to get the injured back safely.
The inhabitants of the planet only had a low level of technology; black powder, primitive ball bearings and boom sticks, but they were enough to do some serious damage if anyone happened to be at the wrong end of one; sometimes even if they were at the right end. Parrish had been unfortunate enough to be hit in the leg by the buckshot sprayed from the muzzle of one of the guns; small pieces of shrapnel embedded just below the surface of the skin. It wasn't life threatening, but it bled like crazy and made it a hell of a lot harder to get all his men back to safety.
John peered around the trunk he was hiding behind and scanned the treeline on the far side of the meadow, searching for some kind of leverage. The natives had gathered themselves together and looked to be putting together some sort of cannon: just when he didn't think his day could get any worse. They were surrounded by tall, ancient looking trees; thick limbs spreading out about two metres off the ground and providing low hanging cover for the group of twenty or so getting ready to blow them away.
Smacking his hand against the bark, John swore under his breath. It was possible that they could incapacitate the locals, but not without them taking serious losses.
John had found, during his time in the Pegasus galaxy, that the Atlantis expedition was the intergalactic equivalent of American tourists in Europe: no matter what they said, their good intentions weren't going to be believed and it was best to play politic on the battlefield so rumours of their ignorant, bloodthirsty nature wouldn't spread.
Fat lot of good it did them, most of the time.
John glanced behind him to see Lorne at the back of the thicket hovering beside Parrish and applying a tourniquet to staunch the flow of blood seeping steadily from the myriad of small but deep flesh wounds spattered across his thigh; there was no way Parrish would be able to walk on that, much less run. He glanced at Teyla and Ronon a few feet away behind their own trees, and the marines crouched down further in with Rodney behind them. With grim determination, he set his shoulders and nodded.
"When I give the signal Lorne, Kemp: be ready to grab Parrish and run. Teyla, Ronon: you're with me. Everyone else, lay down cover fire and get back to the 'jumper, ASAP. Remember, keep the damage to a minimum."
He turned back to the meadow and contemplated his next move, body tensing with every passing second. Taking a deep breath, he raised his P-90 and took aim at the branches, trying to work out which had the most chance of falling with minimal effort and taking out the most hostiles. Focussed as he was on the target, he didn't initially notice the tree begin to sway. He had just taken a deep breath and prepared to pull the trigger, when the trunk cracked, loud enough to echo across the meadow, and fell ponderously over onto the group sheltering below it, easily incapacitating two thirds and distracting the remaining men.
"Huh." John stared in amazement before shaking himself and yelling for everyone to make for the jumper as quickly as possible. The run to the jumper and flight back to the 'gate passed in a frenzied blur of activity and movement. Lopez took a hit in the arm from one of the hostiles who managed to get his wits about him quickly, but there were—thankfully—no other serious injuries.
Rodney glared at Sheppard as they stood to move towards the back, waiting for one of the marines to open the hatch so they could get Parrish and Lopez off first.
Elizabeth and Carson met them as the 'jumper door opened, Carson's team standing by to tend the wounded, before rushing them off to the infirmary with Lorne's team in tow.
"Well?" Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at them questioningly.
"Mother Nature was on our side." Sheppard shrugged, smiling sarcastically. One day, Rodney was going to wipe that smug look off Sheppard's face, possibly sooner than either of them expected.
"If you call an enormous, sturdy tree falling and crushing two thirds of the natives shooting at us 'Mother Nature'." Rodney muttered mutinously, glaring at Sheppard as he stalked out of the jumper. Just once, he'd like to see John take responsibility for his own wellbeing, rather than letting it wane by the wayside while he took responsibility for everyone else's.
"I'm telling you, I had a plan, Rodney. But, as luck would have it, a better one fell out of the sky." Sheppard rolled his eyes towards Weir and headed towards the door, undoing the fastenings on his vest as he went. "Lorne can fill you in on how that little adventure got started, I'll have my own report on your desk tomorrow."
"Okay, John." Elizabeth shook her head at his retreating back and turned to consider Rodney.
"I'm telling you, there's something more to what happened today." Rodney said, drawing himself up to his full height and crossing his arms over his chest, hoping it didn't make him look as defensive as he felt.
"What are you saying, Rodney?" Elizabeth was regarding him seriously, but he could see the telltale twitch of her lips as she fought off a grin.
"I'm saying that a tree falling on top of the people shooting at us at the exact time we needed a diversion is a bit more than a coincidence. Fortuitous things do not happen to us on missions, Elizabeth." Why Rodney was the only person who could see that it was a little bit too fortuitous was beyond him.
"You know, some people might take it for what it is: very lucky. Just be glad you all got home safe, if not sound." She patted him on the shoulder in what felt like a dismissal and left the 'jumper bay with her hands clasped behind her back.
There was something going on here; it didn't take a genius to see it. He just needed to put all the pieces together, mull over the information and data and arrive at a conclusion that was a) not so farfetched, or b) had enough solid evidence to support his suspicions.
Or c) admit he was losing it and collect on the science team's betting pool.
With a sigh he slumped away to the armoury to check in his P-90 and resolved to keep a much closer eye on John.
John would thank him in the end.
Rodney had thrown himself into his work after that night with Radek. Rodney would never in his right mind tell Radek to his face, but he was right, and Rodney had been too caught up to remember; the city did need him. He worked through problems and crises and research like it was going out of fashion. He increased the efficiency of the Mark II Naqadah generators by two percent, and streamlined the environmental controls to use less power. He was at the top of his game, and if he only slept four hours a night so he could spend six with the stupid ascension machine, nobody said a word.
Though they never said anything outright—just hovered, incessantly—Teyla and Ronon worried.
The team had been unofficially split up; without Sheppard, there was no 'team'. Ronon and Teyla were passed around the remaining teams to better share their skills, experience and knowledge of the Pegasus galaxy. McKay himself had occasionally gone out with Lorne's team (which had stepped up to the plate to replace AG-1), but with Lorne walking on eggshells around him it hadn't been worthwhile continuing. Rodney had, after long deliberation, decided that his time would be better spent studying and maintaining the city.
The month following Sheppard's ... ascension had taken its toll on everyone; the military contingent was thoroughly demoralised in spite of Lorne's hasty promotion, and the science division wasn't much better. Rodney's disappearance into the bowels of the city to work on the machine had left the science team dispirited: screwing up as much as they succeeded, and leaving Zelenka's hair in a perpetual state of frazzled distress as he tried to keep everything together.
Rodney had gradually, and with the help—read: constant badgering—of his friends and colleagues, come back from his constant focus on the machine and taken back his duties like a raging storm. He yelled at the engineers, berated the physicists, and had stern words to the head of social sciences about wasting resources on crumbling pieces of pottery. He sat at his workspace and researched, and problem solved, and kept everyone on track in his own inimitable fashion.
He never mentioned the near constant supply of coffee that appeared at his elbow as he worked, and the chocolate that appeared in his drawer, he took as his due. The scientists fell into line and resumed the same steady rate of discovery and mishap as before.
Nobody spoke in direct terms any more; they skirted around the issue—especially around Rodney—and spoke in euphemisms and code. Rodney never addressed the speculation about where Sheppard was, or what he was doing, whether or not he'd actually ascended or just spontaneously combusted. He sat and he worked and he yelled and he quietly maintained the belief that John Was Coming Back.
It just might take him a while to do so. That was all.
John was coming back. John would come back.
John Was Coming Back.
No ifs, buts, or maybes.
...and the next person who decides to flush a feminine hygiene product instead of following proper biohazard sanitation and disposal protocol will be sent to clear out the blockages themselves. There will be DNA testing!
Rodney signed the email with a vicious flourish and sent it to everyone in the city, regardless of gender. The lab was empty except for Zelenka sitting at his workspace and staring at Rodney. He ignored the feeling of Zelenka's beady little eyes boring into the back of his head, setting the fine hairs to stand on end and quiver in spite of his best efforts to remain immune.
"What?" He snapped, not looking over his shoulder and giving Zelenka the gratification of knowing he was getting to him.
"Is nothing," Zelenka said calmly, continuing to stare.
Rodney continued to type; wishing for the heavy, thudding clack of a typewriter to emphasise his ire as he worked through the initial paperwork for maximising the long range sensor's capabilities.
"You are dwelling." Zelenka's quiet voice felt hollow to his ears, dull against the high-pitched ping of Zelenka's computer's mail alert.
"I'm working on the long range sensors, not worrying myself over a few blockages in the sanitation systems." Rodney continued to type and continued to wish for the clunkety clack of the typewriter.
"This is not about sanitation or long range sensors." Radek stood and drifted towards him, lifting the hem of his shirt to clean his glasses in a reflexively reflective mannerism. "You are still thinking about Colonel Sheppard."
"Of course I am; I worked closely with the man for three years." Rodney gritted his teeth, lips thinning to a dissatisfied line. This was why they employed Heightmeyer; so he wouldn't have to talk to his subordinates about his feelings.
"It is more than that." Zelenka leaned against Rodney's workspace, settling his glasses back on his nose and peering down at Rodney with a sympathetic look on his face. "You miss him."
At that, Rodney did stop typing. His hands rested on the keyboard, long, strong fingers stroking the E and I keys as he considered his next words carefully.
"We all do," He stated cautiously, not looking up from the paragraphs glowing gently on the screen.
"You, I think, feel the loss more keenly."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Rodney refused to look up. He didn't think he could take one more kind, sympathetic knowing look.
"I think you do." Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see Zelenka push his glasses up and take a step closer. "You are allowed to grieve, Rodney." Zelenka put his hand on his shoulder, giving a gentle squeeze. Rodney shrugged it off with a glare.
"I'm not grieving."
"You should be. He was your... friend." Zelenka put heavy emphasis on the final word, looking worried, and damnit if Rodney didn't know that he would put in a subtle word with Heightmeyer and Elizabeth and get him stuck in even more therapy sessions than he already had.
"Look, I'm fine. We're not in the middle of a crisis. The wraith aren't attacking, nothing has exploded lately, we're all dealing." Rodney finally looked up at Zelenka, knowing he appeared as tired as he felt. Zelenka's expression was closed off; there was no trace of sympathy or kindness, just a glimmer of discomfort.
"I'm okay, Radek. Really." He tried to look reassuring, hoped he wasn't failing. "He's coming back."
He really hadn't meant to say that.
"Oh, Rodney." The sympathy was back in full force and Rodney felt like he was going to be crushed under the weight of it.
"Please, just. Don't. Don't say anything. To anyone." Rodney turned bodily, facing Zelenka in an attempt at damage control. "I'm coping. It's not getting in the way of my work. You don't need to tell anyone about this."
Radek blinked slowly at him. Rodney could tell he was processing; putting all the pieces together and coming to who-knew-what conclusions.
"I don't think this is healthy." Zelenka regarded him seriously, setting his shoulders and adjusting his stance as if he would readily take on Rodney's weight to carry him through if need be. Rodney felt oddly touched by the sentiment.
"It's working for me and it's not hurting anyone." Rodney protested in a quiet voice, knowing that if he let himself continue in his arguments, he might not stop.
"What will you do in a year's time? Five years? Ten? What will you do if he does not come back?"
Rodney paused, staring off into the distance. He hadn't let himself think about that, yet, so sure that John would come back to them, to him, even if it took a while to do it.
"I'll... He'll... " He blinked at Radek owlishly. "In terms of rejection, coming second to an entire universe doesn't seem so bad." He smiled sadly at Zelenka, and his chair spun gently back so he was facing the computer again. "If he can come back, he will. That's all that matters to me. It's what I have to believe."
Rodney usually wasn't much of one for soul searching, but these late nights in the lab, with only Zelenka for company or distraction, wore down his defences; it made him unconsciously try to fill the gaps left by John's absence. The hole was still gaping, but these annoyingly deep conversations with Zelenka had helped wear down the sharp edges so they didn't tear with every movement, every breath, every stray, errant thought of John. He still ached with a bone-deep pain, but it was no longer shrill and grating. This, he could bear.
"You are a faithful and trusting man, Rodney McKay." Zelenka patted Rodney's shoulder as he passed by him to walk to the door. "I can only hope that there is someone so pigheaded and stubborn on my side if worse comes to worst. Sleep well, Rodney. And soon."
Rodney watched Zelenka go without returning the sentiment before turning back to his computer fully intending to return to the administrative minutiae that never seemed to end. He stared at the screen, looked at the numbers and symbols until his eyes started to blur. He rubbed at them, tiredly, willing them to focus so he wouldn't have to go back to his empty room (empty bed).
"You have to come back, John." He muttered into the dark quiet, resting his head on his keyboard to rest his eyes for a moment. "Please. Just come back."
"Get back here, you fuckers!" John threw himself at the white, white wall with a feral growl. He didn't feel it. Never felt it. "Come back and face me!" He threw himself again and again, trying to make an impression, a dent, change his environment somehow. Nothing he did had any impact: on the wall or himself. He could remember the vague sensation of pain, a muscle memory caught in sinew and fibre and nerves but nothing more.
With a ragged yell he threw his fist at the wall, hoping to feel the shatter of bones, the tearing of flesh from his knuckles and see a smear of blood on the endlessly white never-changing wall. He growled with frustration when it was simply more of the same. He punched again, alternating between fists, punctuating each blow with a ferocious roar. He was sure his throat should have been bleeding by then, trickling down his oesophagus and into his stomach until he felt nauseous; his fists should have resembled mincemeat, chunks of bone and gristle dripping with blood from the places where his fingers used to be.
His hands were perfectly intact. He wasn't even breathing heavily.
This hadn't been what he wanted when he'd started on this path. It was meant to be a quick turnaround; piss them off so they'd send him home. Instead, he'd got this: The Ultimate Prison. Deprivation of life, liberty, and self, all rolled into one. No way to avoid his sentence, no chance of parole or a quick off with a bed-sheet noose. This was the universe's dark corner—ironic that it was so bright—the place under the stairs where the Ancients kept their redheaded stepchild. An inverse Panopticon not geared towards behaviour modification because he was now pretty damn sure nobody was watching.
And yet, still he carried on with the charade that there was.
"Come on!" He yelled, spinning around in the approximate centre of the room, arms splayed as if begging them to take him out, pop, one bullet to the brain, one to the heart and their problem's gone for good. "Talk to me! Show yourselves! Stop being such fucking, sanctimonious bastards and get in here!"
Spinning around, he punched the nearest wall again. "You-" punch "-can't-" punch "-keep-" punch "-me-" punch "-here-" punch "-forever!" punch.
He pulled back to set himself up for a series of hard, fast blows; the kind that would leave him exhausted and panting for breath out there, but in here just made him despair all the more. Before he landed the first blow, he was suddenly aware of a change in the room. Whirling around, he felt his muscles coil as he prepared to leap on whatever it was, determined to get some answers. All the drive left him as his eyes alighted on the apparition before him, leaving him wide eyed and gaping.
"They can't keep you here forever? Oh, but John, they can."
"This is bullshit. There's no way they'll believe this." John murmured to himself as he lay on the bed, knees up to support the laptop, working through the rescue report. His head had been burbling with a low-grade headache for the past few hours, the left side throbbing dully, making it difficult to concentrate and setting his left eye to squinting. He'd left his office after a corporal had been made nervous by the way John's face had been twitching.
His quarters were more comfortable, anyway.
With his index finger hooked over his lip, teeth gently gnawing on the short nail, he pecked the words out slowly, hovering over the keyboard as he searched for the next letter. He should have given himself a wider timeframe to get the report to Elizabeth.
He was about halfway through the report, when his door chimed. He grunted at the door, vaguely sounding out the words 'Come in' slack lipped around his finger, and continued typing as Rodney swept into the room and immediately began talking.
"So, we've managed to get the machine working without zapping anyone again." Rodney shucked off his jacket and tossed it over the back of John's desk chair. "Elizabeth is down with Radek working on the translation and we should hopefully have some idea of what it actually does by tomorrow morning." Rodney spun the chair around and sat down, watching John intently.
"Cool," John murmured, searching out the U key.
"You're still feeling okay? No headaches? Fever? Joint pains? Hot flushes or tingling sensations? Hmm?"
John paused and looked up. Rodney was wearing his 'Everything is A-OK, nothing could possibly be wrong' face, which, of course, meant 'I am worried stupid and am doing my best to hide it'.
Taking his finger out of his mouth, John wiped it on his shirt and glared.
"I'm not menopausal, Rodney."
"That wasn't what I meant at all and you know it." Rodney scowled. "This is important. We need to know if anything changes as soon as it happens. You, of all people, should understand the dangers inherent in using Ancient equipment; especially considering the number of times it's bitten you and all of us in the collective ass. I know communication isn't your forte, Mr. Stoic, but you can just go to Carson, point out on the body chart where it hurts and grunt a little, he'll know what you mean."
"That's Lieutenant-Colonel Stoic, to you," John grumbled, ignoring Rodney and returning to his report. It wasn't that he didn't understand why Rodney's panties were in a bunch, it was just... he felt fine. Well, apart from the headache, but he was sure that was from reading the screen for so long. And dealing with an hysterical Rodney, but that was almost par for the course. Otherwise, he felt fantastic. If it weren't for the fact that he had to finish this report, he'd be up and running the long track around the south pier; that was how great he felt.
"You're not even listening to a word I'm saying, are you?" Rodney stood up and began pacing in front of John's bed, back and forth with intermittent glowering in John's direction. "You want me to list every way Ancient technology has fucked us over? Fine, I'll do it chronologically. One: the Shadow Entity sucking the energy out of people, which, might I add, nearly eviscerated me and everyone else in the city. Two: Teyla's necklace: small, inconsequential, but holding the power to bring the wraith down on, oh, the entire city. Three: Nanite Virus. Nearly took out—sing it with me—the entire city. Need I say more? Four: Uh. Duranda. I, um, I think we know how well that ended. With the destruction of, not just an entire city, but an entire—no,five-sixths!—of an entire solar system. Five: You turned into a bug. Do I need to repeat it? You turned into a-"
"Jeez, Rodney." John cut Rodney off, shoving the laptop to the side of the bed and standing up, stalking over to Rodney until they were all but chest-to-chest. "I get it! Ancient technology is trying to kill us all! It doesn't change the fact that there is nothing wrong with me."
"Maybe not on the outside." Rodney sniffed disdainfully, taking a step back from John and crossing his arms. "Your intestines could be liquefying, muscles solidifying, veins atrophying, something, I don't know. You could be developing a blood clot in your brain that's just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger until your brains explode and dribble out your nose!" Rodney was red in the face and hyperventilating by the time he finished his tirade, eyes wide and fearful, flashing white around the edges and pupils dilating.
John took another step forward, bringing them close together again, and lay his palms on Rodney's shoulders to hold him steady, thumbs rubbing softly over Rodney's collarbones. He ducked his head to bring their eye lines level.
"I'm sorry, Rodney. Really. But, there is nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." He tried to speak in as soft and calming voice as he could muster, squeezing Rodney's shoulders gently in reassurance, but Rodney jerked away with a sneer.
"You're not taking this seriously." Rodney spat contemptuously, spinning around to grab his jacket from the back of the desk and heading towards the door. "I can't help it if I love you and am worried absolutely sick that I've killed you."
John felt gobsmacked by the sudden confession, reeling as if it were a physical blow. This... thing... they had together was just easy. They didn't do deep, soul-bearing confessions or... 'Relationship Talks'. They fought and they fucked and they took silent comfort. They watched movies and played chess and fell asleep curled up around each other. They didn't... talk.
"That's, uh. What? Really? I- uh, well. Wow." John stammered, trying to find his feet both figuratively and literally.
"What are you talking about?" Rodney looked over his shoulder suspiciously. "It's eating your brain right now, isn't it? Oh my god, we have to call Carson."
"It's just, I, well. Y'know, it's sudden. Ish. Um, and. I- Uh. You know. Me, yeah. You, too. Not the, uh, not about the, um, the killing me. Thing. I don't mean that. The, uh, the other thing. With the, um. Words." John stuttered and stumbled his way inelegantly through the declaration.
If it could be called that.
"Oh no, it's taken your ability to speak!" Rodney rushed forward and pushed John back to sit on the bed, tapping his comm. and barking into the mic as he sat beside him to keep John propped up in his arms. "Beckett! I need a medical team to Sheppard's quarters. Now!" He tapped the comm. again and rocked John gently in his embrace. "It's okay, John. Beckett's coming and he's going to fix whatever the machine did to your head and you're going to be able to speak again. Everything's going to be all right. Just relax."
Rodney's lips pressing against his temple brought him back from his stunned inaction. He pushed Rodney back a little and tapped his own comm.
"Belay that, Beckett. McKay's had too much coffee. Everything's fine. Sheppard out." John turned to face Rodney, prepared to demand what the hell Rodney was talking about when he was yanked back and pressed close to Rodney's chest.
"Fuck. It's an Alzheimer's machine. You're going to be drifting in and out of coherency for the rest of your short, pitiful life until you have no idea what's going on or where we are and I'm left spooning mashed up vegetables between your drooling lips while you call me a nice young boy and ask me when Rodney's coming." Rodney babbled as he squeezed John tighter.
John struggled in Rodney's arms, pulling and tugging until he was free from Rodney's grasp, panting from the exertion, head pounding and buzzing as he tried to get enough air to talk. He ended up standing beside the bed, backing towards the door as Rodney stood up to follow, sympathy and worry writ clear upon his face.
"Damnit, Rodney!" John shouted, holding his hands up to keep Rodney away. His head was beginning to thump like a dehydration headache in the midst of the pounding beat of a rave. He was suddenly finding it hard to concentrate. He shook his head against the sensation, feeling a little dizzy.
Rodney took another step towards him, arms open but eyes wary and confused. John took another step back and shook his head. The last thing he needed was Rodney trying to hug him back to good health and completely avoiding the topic at hand. He knew he, himself, was a master of avoiding serious conversations, but this was just ridiculous.
"I don't have Alzheimer's! How did you expect me to react when you drop a bombshell like that, huh?"
"Bombshell? What bombshell? You not taking things seriously is hardly what I'd consider to be a bombshell." Rodney looked genuinely perplexed.
"No, wait. This was just after that." John snapped his fingers, pointed at Rodney and then tapped his lips in thought. "You said you were worried that you were the one who killed me. And that you may, uh, have. Feelings. For me. Specific ones."
Rodney's eyes widened and he backed up a few paces.
A succinct Rodney was a scary Rodney, John had always felt. He watched him carefully as Rodney took a couple of steps towards him before halting suddenly and walking away.
"Okay, this is weird." Rodney breathed, leaning against the frame of the window and looking out to sea. "John, I want you to listen carefully to what I'm about to tell you. The green moose swims in blue Jell-o."
"The what what what? Rodney, are you sure you're not the one with the problem?" John crossed his arms and glared at Rodney's back. If he was just going to play games and fuck around then- Well, actually, that was what they did most of the time. But not like this.
"Just repeat it to me." Rodney's voice was low and serious, shoulders tense and hunched.
"Fine, but I want some answers, after. The green moose swims in blue Jell-o. Happy?"
"Oh, wow. Holy fuck." Rodney turned and stared at John as if he'd never met him before; like John was some strange science experiment that had just produced something completely incongruous with the anticipated results. Rodney moved closer, hands hovering over John's body, but not touching. "I didn't say anything, John." Rodney said gravely, lips tightening into a thin line as he looked John straight in the eye. "I thought it."
John snorted and rolled his eyes, prepared to cuff Rodney over the back of the head and tell him to start taking things seriously, but then he saw it. Or, rather, didn't see it.
Rodney's lips didn't move.
They didn't move then, and they weren't moving now, and the pain in John's head was getting more insistent and accompanied by a loud buzz and how did he not notice this sooner? Theorems and equations, calculations, ideas that weren't his buzzing through his head coupled with thoughts that made no sense Is he okay? and Oh god, I've broken him! John stumbled back, dropping to his bed with a thump as he pressed the heels of his palm to his eyes and struggled to keep his breathing even.
The suddenness of it was like a physical force. He'd barely even noticed it creeping up on him, didn't even realise he was reading Rodney's mind until Rodney himself had told him. It had started like a leaking tap, a subtle drip that was barely noticeable, until someone had spun the faucet and let out everything at once. It was overwhelming, and just a little bit painful.
If he didn't look at Rodney, it was easier to handle, but even then Rodney was broadcasting like PBS.
"Rodney." John gritted out through clenched teeth as he tried to push his own thoughts through the waves coming off of Rodney. "I need you to call Carson and go get Ronon and Teyla." He took a deep breath and looked up, forcing himself not to crumple under the onslaught. "Come here."
He held a hand up to Rodney, his other clenching the edge of the mattress. Wrapping his hand around the back of Rodney's neck, he pulled him in for a fast hard kiss.
"You have to go, you have to get them, and then you have to Stay. Away." He squeezed the nape of Rodney's neck before sliding his hand up to rest on the back of his skull. "It's too much. I can't... I can't think. When you're thinking. Please."
"I. But. I can help you. Smartest man in two galaxies, here. I can fix this. Let me fix this." Rodney pleaded with him, moving to sit beside John on the bed, to try and offer comfort. John's hands shot to Rodney's shoulders to hold him at bay.
"Not this, you can't. At least, not here. Just... You think too much, you know that? And. You need to leave." He tried to smile reassuringly, to let Rodney know that this wasn't an outright dismissal. "We'll talk. Later. Don't think I've forgotten, even with you thinking for both of us right now."
Rodney nodded and backed away looking like his puppy had just been run over by a man driving a Hummer.
"I'll work this out and fix it, John. I promise." Rodney whispered, as if lowering his volume would stop John from looking at him in pain. He stepped out into the hallway and watched John sadly as the door slid closed.
John swallowed and nodded, feeling his stomach roil at the fact that the further away Rodney got, the better he felt. The pain and noise in his head remained at a constant after the door closed; nowhere near as bad as when Rodney was in the room, but still present enough to know that Rodney was close by. He knew that, when it started to subside, Rodney had stopped staring at his door and headed off to do what John had asked.
As the last tendrils of Rodney's thoughts unwrapped themselves from his own, he slumped back to the bed, exhausted and silent in the confines of his mind. He wondered why he hadn't picked up on anyone else nearby, and whether it was because there was no one else in the nearby quarters, or if the force of Rodney's intellect and personality had overshadowed everything.
Now that Rodney was gone, he felt kind of... empty. His own thoughts were there, but they were nowhere near the speed or density of Rodney's. He buried his head under his pillow against the feeling and marvelled at the fact that Rodney could have so many thoughts, so much going on in that enormous, incredible brain—and he would never doubt Rodney's genius again, after this—and yet still have room in there to worry about John. The notion comforted him as he drifted into an exhausted sleep, hearing only the occasional, stray, dampened thought from the people passing his door.
Rodney stalked through the hallways, barrelling past people and ignoring anyone who tried to talk to him as he made his way to the gym where Teyla could usually be found, barking at Carson over the comm. that, no, it was actually very important, and if Carson called him histrionic one more time, he was going to detach Carson's quarters from the power grid. And that would only be the beginning of the torment he'd face.
"I'm telling you, Carson. If you don't get to Sheppard's quarters—soon—we could have a much bigger problem than 'zapped by strange ancient machine'." He stepped into the transporter, glaring at the lowly technician who took his sweet time exiting, and pressed the map to take him to the tower.
"No, I can't tell you exactly what the problem is here. Regardless of what you might think, I don't actually go around trying to incite panic... I have not had too much coffee, damnit!"
The transporter doors opened and he stepped into a silent hallway; the distant sounds of wood against wood against flesh the only indication that there was anybody in the area.
"Okay, listen. Sheppard read my mind." Rodney paused as he waited for an answer, foot tapping impatiently as he looked towards the door he needed to go through so he could get Sheppard what he needed. He'd already begun to put together the pieces of Sheppard's vague plan, and figured it was most likely the best course of action.
"I tested him, okay? I turned away from him and thought of the most ridiculous, asinine phrase I could and made him repeat it to me. ... What? No. He had no idea what I was doing. He didn't even realise he'd done it. ... Look, just get down there. I'm sending Ronon and Teyla down. ... No, I won't be there. ... Because it hurts him, okay? ... Yes, apparently not everybody can handle my genius. ... Shut up and go help John. McKay out."
Stalking over to the door he palmed the sensor, muttering about the Lt. Colonel who cried hypochondriac and waved his arms to get Ronon and Teyla to stop beating each other with sticks and pay attention to him.
"We have a situation. The two of you need to get to Sheppard's quarters right now. And would it kill either of you to wear your comm.?" Rodney glared at the pair, sweating and golden in bodily perfection. Teyla was the first to lower her weapons, raising her eyebrow at Ronon as if daring him to challenge her authority. Wisely, he followed suit, dumping the sticks in his bag and reaching for a towel.
"Rodney? What has happened?" Teyla asked, as she quickly packed up her gear and slipped her comm. over her ear delicately.
"Don't freak out, okay. I mean, the two of you aren't normally the types to freak out, but this is a situation that catapults previous definitions of freaky into the ether. So, you have to be calm—you're good at that—and just listen and don't freak out."
Ronon and Teyla exchanged a knowing glance and resisted the urge to roll their eyes at him.
"I assure you we will not 'freak out', Rodney. Please tell us of this... situation." Teyla gently asked, laying a hand on his shoulder to steer him towards the door and out of the room.
"Okay, no." Rodney planted his feet and stayed stubbornly at the door to the gym. "I'm staying here. Both of you need to go to Sheppard's quarters because Sheppard can, um. He can read minds. And apparently my mind is a bit overwhelming. What can I say? Genius, here." Rodney clapped his hands together and clenched them, hard, in an effort not to let the worry and tension reveal themselves through his fluttering hands. "He asked for you, and I think it's because you're the most stoic—I mean that in a good way—and serene people here. You shouldn't, um. Hurt. Him." Rodney bounced on his toes, resisting the need to push them down the hall and make them be there already.
"John is reading minds?" Teyla asked, eyes widening in disbelief, casting a wary glance over her shoulder at Ronon, who simply shrugged.
"Didn't I just say that? Look, you need to go. Now. He was in a lot of pain when I left and I've already called Carson about Sheppard a few times today, so I don't know that he's taking this call seriously." Rodney's voice had a high, stringy, endlessly worried quality to it as he hastened Ronon and Teyla to the transporter and pushed them inside. "Just call me when you get there and let me know he's okay, okay?"
Ronon pressed the living quarters on the map before Teyla could respond, the doors sliding shut and leaving Rodney alone in the tower.
Rodney slumped back to the gym, sagging down onto the bench seat beside the stained glass window and resting his forehead on the wall. He desperately wanted to go back to his lab, the room with the machine, anywhere he could do something to try and fix everything, but without knowing what the range was on John's new ability he couldn't risk it.
He considered calling John on the radio to see if he could still read his mind, dismissing the thought when he realised his thoughts might be broadcast with the radio signal. Or could they? Was it just proximity? Was it the 'volume' of his thoughts? Could he think quieter? There were too many variables, too many questions, too many possible answers, and nowhere near enough data to begin hypothesising with any degree of accuracy.
This was the part where he had to wait. He was the biggest problem in this equation: the catalyst for impending disaster. He had no idea if he could actually do it, or, rather, not do anything at all. He was the one with the answers, the fixer, the man with the plan. He couldn't just sit here, as far away from John as possible, and twiddle his thumbs. He had to get answers, get them to work out the proximity so that he could move around the city without getting near John. His hand shot to his ear, intending to call Teyla so they could set up the tests as soon as possible when his radio crackled to life.
"Sheppard to McKay. Rodney? I'm all right."
"No. No, no, no! This is not okay! It is not all right!" McKay bellowed, slamming the datapad into the quivering scientist's chest. "What you don't seem to understand is that your vague attempts at critical reasoning rival only newborns' unchanged diapers. If we implemented any of your supposed theories, we would not only fry every crystal in the main tower, but every single Naqadah generator as well. Was there some emotional trauma during your childhood that made you this incompetent? Did Mommy not breastfeed you? Did Daddy touch you in a bad place? In you, I can see the reason some mammals eat their young. There's a nursery on level six, you're reassigned there until you can prove you can't kill yourself with a building block. Out!"
The scientist, recently arrived on the Daedalus, promptly burst into tears and fled from the lab. A couple of the veteran scientists hurried after, throwing glowers of contempt in McKay's direction. Which he ignored.
"Rodney," Radek sighed, shaking his head and coming to stand beside McKay. "I think you are having problems, yes?"
McKay turned a murderous glare on Zelenka.
"So you're joining in on the 'softly, softly' campaign, too?" McKay sneered, pushing past Zelenka to grab a dry erase marker from the ledge of the white board and viciously began to scrawl equations across it. "If I had to hold every scientist's hand through every little thing, 'softly, softly' would quickly turn into 'dead-ly, dead-ly' and the entire expedition would collapse under the weight of the gross stupidity we seem to have accumulated. So, if it's all the same to you, fuck off with your namby-pamby, sunshine-and-roses approach to scientific method and let the real scientists work on saving the day."
"It is one thing for me to disagree with your methods when you have sound reasons, it is another for me to stand aside while you are being deliberately mean with no basis." Radek raised his hand to still McKay's on the board. "If you do not get yourself together—soon!—I will tell Elizabeth, Dr. Heightmeyer and Dr. Beckett that you believe Colonel Sheppard to be coming back."
"You wouldn't." Rodney stilled, fingers tightening on the hard plastic of the marker until it splintered in his grip. He turned to Radek, hand now forming a fist around the crumbling pen and body thrumming with suppressed rage. "I don't see what any of this has to do with you." McKay said, drawing himself up to his full height and taking a step closer to Radek, leaning into Radek's space with a view to intimidate.
"You said it yourself weeks ago: 'It's not getting in the way of my work.'" Radek refused to be bullied; he stood his ground and looked up at Rodney with clear eyes and new steel to his posture. "Clearly, it is. You are not handling this well and it is affecting every aspect of your work. You are less productive, less able to handle the stresses of your job, and, frankly, you are not the scientist you once were."
"You weaselly little-" McKay pulled his fist back, ready to smash those smarmy glasses into Radek's face when Radek stepped back and raised his hands.
"Do prdele! Hit me if you want, but it will just give them more reason to remove you." Radek glared at McKay. "You can keep pushing every person who cares about you away, but one day there will be no one left."
"Your logic is flawless: pushing people away will make them go away! Brilliant deduction, Brainiac. Did you ever think that maybe that's what I want?" McKay laughed mirthlessly, but held off on braining Zelenka with his fist.
"Not for a second." Zelenka said solemnly. "You are a good man, Rodney. But right now, not a stable one. This is not good. I am going to give you two days-"
"What the fuck? You don't have any authority to do that!" McKay cut him off with an apoplectic sputter.
"I am going to give you two days." Radek restated calmly. "You are not to come to the lab. You are not to intimidate, berate or manhandle any of the scientists. You will go, take some time, and if you come back acting like zmrd you are now, I will tell what I know."
"That's blackmail." McKay threw the remains of the pen at the wall and stomped over to his desk to pick up his datapad and laptop.
"Yes." Zelenka agreed, letting out a sigh of relief as he watched McKay stalk to the door and muscle past it before it had a chance to open completely.
Rodney was beyond pissed. He glared at everything that moved as he stormed back to his room, dumping the laptop and datapad on the bed before spinning around and punching the wall. His hand throbbed painfully, knuckles scraped and beginning to weep.
He didn't know where it had come from: this sudden need to do some serious damage, but he welcomed it as a change from the alternating pain and numbness. Somewhere, in the depths of his mind, he acknowledged Zelenka's level-headedness gratefully, but ignored it as he imagined the weaselly little face on the wall and punched it again. The throbbing in his hand grew in intensity, and he knew he would do some serious damage if he didn't stop; he just didn't want to. He punched again, and again, until the face morphed into long, angular lines and full lips in his mind and he stumbled back.
Cradling his swelling hand in the palm of the other, he panted heavily and glared at the place he'd imagined the face. "You fuck," he huffed, thrashing at the detritus on the floor with his foot. "You fucking left and didn't come back and you're-" With a tormented yell, Rodney lashed out at the bed, the pillows, the pile of laundry in the corner; throwing things back and forth until the room was in an even greater state of disarray and Rodney was left heaving for breath.
He raised his hand to his ear, marvelling at the stretch and burn of abused flesh as he tapped his comm..
"Ronon? Meet me at the gym." He barked into the receiver, already stripping off and changing into something he could work up a sweat in.
"About time." Came the response. "Already there."
He tapped the signal off and tossed the earpiece to the bedside table. Finishing changing, he grabbed a towel and stormed out of the room, ignoring everything and everyone on his way until he stepped through the doors to the gym and found it blessedly empty of everyone except Ronon. Lobbing his towel the floor, moved to stand on the mat.
"Run that by me again." John blinked.
The woman (woman shaped Ancient, John's mind supplied) had appeared in the midst of his rage driven attack on the walls of his enclosure, and hovered serenely in the approximate middle of the room. She appeared as a middle-aged woman, grey-streaked hair pulled back in an intricate series of cascading curls that trailed down one shoulder, and a chiton falling to her ankles, clasped at the shoulder and girded at the waist.
John's hands clenched and unclenched as he held himself off from launching himself at her and holding her down until he got some answers.
"The collective can, and will, hold you here for eternity."
The collective? The Ancients didn't really read as the most inclusive bunch, leaving John with a jolting sense of dissonance and hysteria driven Borg jokes flitting through his mind.
"You must understand, they have been removed from the petty squabbles and conflict of the lesser creatures of the universe for a very long time—a multitude of your lifetimes—and are no longer equipped to deal with fractious personalities. They have stagnated and lost touch and would sooner keep you imprisoned for eternity, than attempt to work through the problem."
"You seem to be doing pretty well..." John quirked an eyebrow, standing down from his defensive pose and assuming a cocky, hip-jutting stance.
"Unlike my peers, I have been granted permission to interact with the younger inhabitants of the universe, and have thus come to appreciate the quirks and intricacies that have allowed, and will continue to allow, you to survive harsh environs." She inclined her head respectfully, if a little mockingly.
"Okay..." John drawled, tapping his foot impatiently. "And you've, what? Come to the Zoo to see the smart monkey?"
"Hardly!" She tittered, her legs raising and crossing at the knees as though she were sitting comfortably on a chair. In mid-air. "No, John. I can assure you that my interests are far more intellectual than watching a lesser creature act on its baser instincts; though, I must admit that your little tantrum was quite revealing."
"Thanks," John replied with a sardonic smile, "I always aim to please. So, if you're not here to point and throw rotten fruit, what are you here for?" Cut to the chase, cut through the bullshit. John considered attempting to sit as his visitor was, but he hadn't yet managed to make his new-fangled powers work in this place, so there probably wasn't much point. "And, come to think of it, who are you?"
"I am known as The Pythia. My true name has been lost in the annals of time. I have moved throughout the galaxy for millennia, offering guidance where necessary and learning where I can. I am here, John Sheppard, to offer you a deal." At the mention of a deal, the austere and refined image cracked, betraying a wicked, challenging grin.
"A deal?" John asked, taken aback at the sudden change. "An Ancient Ancient Greek priestess of Apollo has come to offer me a deal... of course, because my death just couldn't get any weirder. What kind of deal?"
"Hush, child. You are not dead and we both know it." She picked at a nonexistent piece of lint on her dress and arranged it primly. "The arrangement I wish to propose will free you from this prison."
"Great! Where do I sign?" John didn't care what he'd have to do, who he'd have to kill, fuck or worse; he wanted—needed—out.
"Restrain yourself, John." She chided, tsking at his eagerness. "It will not be simple. In fact, it may be the most difficult task you have encountered. I do not know that you will succeed, but I will be most interested in the outcome." She said the last with a knowing smirk; it was as though she completely expected John's failure, but thought his flailing attempts at whatever she asked would be amusing.
"You're Q!" John blurted, staring defiantly and assuming his best Picardian pose. "You've just come here to mock me and mess everything up and then leave problems unfixed!" He poked angrily at the air about her chest, resisting the urge to get up into her space and really make an impact.
"Q? What is- No, it is of no matter. My time grows short. Are you willing to undertake the tasks I set before you and perhaps find your way home? Or would you prefer to remain here and stagnate for all your days?" Her eyes were sharp, no longer gazing at him with the look of an impish, playful demigod. "Answer."
"Fine. Yes! Anything to get out of here, okay? What do I have to do?"
"Wonderful." She relaxed and stretched luxuriously, the smirk returning with a vengeance. "The challenge is threefold. The mind, the heart and the body; know thy friends, know thyself, and know thy journey."
"Because you wouldn't want to be clichéd or anything." John snorted, wondering if this was actually the Ancient equivalent of the funny farm and there was actually no hope of him getting out. Ever.
"For all your years, you are but a child in this world. It would do you well to pay attention and learn." She quirked an eyebrow and looked at him with unimpressed disdain. John had the presence of mid to fake contrition. "Good boy. Your first step is to remain here. You must meditate on your relationships—past, present, and future—and answer to me clear in heart and mind the questions I will place to you."
"Wait, so this isn't happening now?" John huffed. It wasn't like he didn't have the time, but he didn't have the time. Every minute spent away from Atlantis—away from Rodney—was a waste and a pain.
"Impatient, aren't you, little one?" The Pythia smirked in a particularly Q-like way that was really beginning to get John's goat.
"Well, yeah. I think I left the gas on before I ascended. I'd hate to see the place catch fire because of a silly mistake." John was really beginning to get tired of the attitude. It was only polite to respond in kind.
"Oh, this will be an interesting journey, John Sheppard." The Pythia smiled. "You will wait and think and meditate upon your relationships—friendly and otherwise—and I will return when I believe you to be ready to answer, and not before. Use your time well."
And with that, she was gone.
John's shoulders slumped. All this waiting for something to happen, and then when something finally did, it was just more waiting. He smacked his palm lightly against the wall and began to pace.
"Okay, relationships. You can do this. Concentrate."
"You must focus, John." Teyla chastened from her position opposite on the mat. The room was dimly lit by candles placed around the walls at seemingly random intervals and incense wafted from the small cones Teyla had placed on the window sill. "Learn to work with your power so it will not work against you. Now, breathe."
John clenched his jaw and took a deep breath, focussing on building a mental wall around himself to block out Teyla's thoughts of hearth and home. When he'd asked Rodney to get Teyla and Ronon, he'd been expecting to end up working with Ronon on building up his defences against Rodney's constant barrage of thought. That idea had come to an abrupt end when Ronon had walked into the room and John had to quickly scramble to the bathroom to throw up after being assaulted by the confluence of the terror seven years of running, and the bone-deep agony of being the only known survivor of an entire planet. It was Teyla's calm dignity he had clung to as Ronon's thoughts and emotions overwhelmed him and he'd sobbed like a child while Beckett administered a sedative. He was grateful to Teyla, for both having the patience to guide him and for carrying her own sorrow with such poise that it didn't bring him to his knees.
He was never, ever, going to talk about what he'd overheard Beckett thinking.
"Relax, John. You will never be able to maintain your focus thus while doing your duties. You must learn to do it naturally. Focus on yourself and then push gently outward." Teyla's voice was soft and even, low enough to guide but not disrupt.
John did as she instructed, clearing his head and drawing in with his next breath. He could still feel Teyla's thoughts, hear her focussing on the fire pit in Charin's tent on Athos and the warmth that would rise from it as she sat dozing against her father's knee as a child. As he let the breath out, he pushed out with his mind, imagining it coming up against a brick wall between them. He could feel her thoughts slip away from his, muffled as though through water. Opening his eyes, he smiled at her; the crackle of the fire becoming a mental suggestion rather than a surround-sound screening.
"Awesome." He breathed, letting the mental shield settle over his mind like a blanket. "You know I think this-" His thoughts wandered and the fire roared back to life, popping and snapping amidst the hollow clunks of hand-made earthenware jugs and crockery. "Damnit! I totally had it." John smacked his hands against his knees and turned away from Teyla to lessen the noise.
"It will take time to become proficient." Teyla said kindly. "As with the bantos, you cannot be shown a single movement and then defeat your opponent; you must practice each individual move, and begin to piece them together. This time, focus simply on being with the shield. We can add in talking, and perhaps even walking-" she added with a twinkle in her eye, "-at a later stage."
John pulled a face.
"Fine. I got it. Baby steps." Rubbing his palms against his knees, John rolled his shoulders back, stretched his neck, and closed his eyes. He settled into the meditation posture and relaxed each muscle one by one, focussing again on drawing his mind in and then subtly pushing out. Once he could feel the liquid muffling of Teyla's thoughts and emotions, he kept his eyes closed and let himself sink down into it. He waited a few minutes, letting his own thoughts take over and zing through the suddenly empty space before opening his eyes again and gently probing around the barrier, looking for points of weakness.
He sighed as he realised it was going to take much more work before he'd be able to face anyone, let alone groups of people; the barricade he'd erected was as thin as a sliver, and he knew it wouldn't take much for it to all come crashing down around him. He could feel Teyla's gentle approval, even through the shield, but at least he'd begun to be able to filter out conscious thought.
"Okay," He began slowly, taking his time to buffer up just in case. "I don't know how long I can hold it." He could feel a sweat beginning to break out on his forehead, and knew Teyla was right: he wouldn't be able to maintain this in a public area.
"Patience, John." Teyla said as she handed him a towel. "We will keep practicing. You are doing very well so far."
The crackle of the fire came back as John felt his attention waver and as parts of the flimsy barrier came down, he caught flashes of worry and fear with the image of John collapsing in her arms. Tentatively, he reached out a hand and squeezed her shoulder.
"You shouldn't worry so much. Practice, right? We'll get there. Now, hit me with that roaring fire." John closed his eyes and settled back down to concentrate. As he reconstructed the walls, he saw an image flash through the serene setting of Charin's tent: a younger Teyla sitting in the lip of a shallow cave holding a small, orphaned child as Wraith darts shot through the sky and culling beams rained down around them while the child patted her hair whispering It's alright, Teyla. We'll be fine.
Hours later, shirt drenched in sweat and a tension headache forming behind his right eye, John had almost mastered keeping the shield in place while walking and talking. Teyla's thoughts were no longer a persistent buzz in his head, and his own mind was asserting itself more forcefully and drowning external thoughts down to static.
He was about to suggest they go for a stroll through one of the lesser-populated areas, when he felt a twinge at the back of his mind. He held up a hand to stop Teyla moving and listened carefully.
"Rodney's coming. It's not good."
"I know this is bad, Elizabeth. That's why I'm going with you." Rodney scowled as he hurried along the corridor beside her, shoulders hunched.
"I just don't see how you being there is going to help, Rodney." Elizabeth responded calmly, back straight and face set in quiet determination. "The reports I've heard have all said that Colonel Sheppard has been unable to withstand being around people, and that you were the biggest problem."
"No, that would be Ronon. I just made his head hurt a little," Rodney corrected, looking at Elizabeth sketchily out of the corner of his eye.
"You make my head hurt a little. According to Beckett and Teyla, you made his head hurt a lot. Just wait out here until I find out how bad it is, okay?" Elizabeth came to a stop and lay a hand on Rodney's shoulder, at once an attempt at reassurance and a decisive sign that Rodney would go no further.
"Fine. But I want to hear-"
"Elizabeth?" John's voice sounded over the radio, cutting Rodney off. "Bring him in, I can handle it. Sheppard out."
Giving Elizabeth a smug smile, Rodney patted her hand and removed it to continue down the hall to the door.
"I hope I never have to get used to that," Elizabeth murmured under her breath as she hurried behind Rodney to follow him through the door.
"John, how are you feeling?" she asked as she stepped into the room.
Noting the sweat dripping down Sheppard's forehead and the way his shirt hung damply from sagging shoulders, Rodney maintained a position at the door to keep the greatest distance possible between Sheppard and himself. He may have demanded to be there, but he still harboured no small amount of fear that he'd be the one to do Sheppard's head in.
"What do you mean I'm gonna die?" John demanded, focus darting between Elizabeth and Rodney suspiciously.
"John, it's not that simple. The machine-" Elizabeth began, taking a step closer to John to try and explain better.
"The machine is a broken ascension machine and now I'm evolving at an accelerated rate..." John trailed off as he tried to assimilate the two very different viewpoints on the current information coming from Elizabeth and Rodney. "I don't care if they're subconscious, McKay, stop it with the monkey cracks." He threw a glare in Rodney's direction before turning to face Elizabeth. "Well, I don't necessarily have to ascend, right? I can just stay all highly evolved and channel Jean Grey—no, not Dark Phoenix—wait, what, woah. Ascend or die? Those are really shitty options you're giving me here." He took a step back, running a hand through his sweaty hair as he tried to process. "Damnit, Elizabeth, this is not fascinating, it's my life." John glared for all his worth. "So, fine. I'll just ascend, do a quickie turnaround and come back. No, Elizabeth, it is that easy; I'll make it that easy." Grabbing his bag from the floor, John stormed past Elizabeth and Rodney and down the corridor to the transporter, ignoring their verbal and mental protests as he hit the east pier on the map and disappeared.
"Great." Rodney clapped his hands together with a fierce look at Elizabeth. "Not only have you scared him senseless, you've sent him to ground and made him determined to ascend, of all things. Give yourself a pat on the back for a day's worth of mindfucking well done."
Following in John's footsteps, Rodney stomped along the same path as Sheppard to the transporter and hit the location closest to the labs. If he was going to fix John, he was going to need Zelenka's help.
"Ah, Zelenka." Rodney began nervously as he hovered beside his desk. "It occurs to me that I may have acted a little, well, the term 'rat bastard' comes to mind, but, yes. I owe you a debt of gratitude, and- No, that's just awful. Think, Rodney. Think."
Rodney spun away from his desk and paced his quarters, kicking dirty clothes out of the way so he'd have a clear path. The months following John's ascension had seen Rodney hit rock bottom; his quarters were a mess, his clothes and appearance unkempt, his work suffering. He had bruises in unthinkable places—his entire body—from taking his aggression out on Ronon until he'd collapsed into an exhausted sleep and woken up feeling vaguely human and somewhat guilty.
Since then, he'd barely managed to save the city from two power overloads in the secondary converters because he couldn't think, had Zelenka on his back for giving the okay to functionally useless projects and rejecting potentially useful ones because he wasn't paying attention, and had nearly caused the complete city-wide shut down of the sanitation system because of a glaringly obvious miscalculation that even an eighth grade science teacher from Buttfuck, Kansas could have spotted a mile off.
It had been, to say the least, a very bad few months.
Rodney would agree that he was a petty man; an arrogant man. He would agree that there were many more synonyms which were more than applicable to him. He would like to believe that he was never wrong, but, having been convinced otherwise by an entire galaxy and then some, he had learned the value of humility.
He didn't know why his subconscious had chosen that particular morning to decide to pull him kicking and screaming out of his post-John funk and into the land of the if-not-living-then-certainly-functioning. He just knew that when he woke up, he no longer felt like a green rope of electricity had wrapped itself around his chest and was slowly squeezing the air out of him; sending him to panic stations with every laboured breath.
He felt neither calm nor anxious nor guilty. He did not clutch at John's pillow, wracked with shuddering, silent sobs.
He felt numb; resigned.
It was an effort to get up. A bone-tired weariness had settled itself about his head and shoulders, weighing him down with the need to bear it home. He had sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at his bare feet as he wiggled his toes bemusedly.
It occurred to him that, if John were there, he would be glaring now. He'd kick Rodney's ass and push and heckle him until he got his act together.
He hadn't thought it would take this long for John to come back. He'd thought, like John, it'd be like nipping out to the store for milk; there and back in relatively no time. He hadn't expected these seemingly endless months of waiting.
As he'd looked up at the defiant stare of Johnny Cash, he made a deal: he would stop acting like such a prissy bitch and wait for John with dignity.
John would come back, eventually. Rodney wouldn't give up hope.
He'd stared at Johnny Cash through narrowed eyes and stood, moving to the end of the bed to face him completely.
"Okay, I know this is kind of dumb, but that can't be helped. Listen, Cash, here's the deal: You, acting in the stead of whichever deity John may have some sort of affinity for, are going to bring him back. In return, I'll apologise to everyone: Zelenka, Ronon, Teyla, Elizabeth, Carson. Individually. I'll make sure the city doesn't blow up or become otherwise derelict. I'll keep everything working and in good condition, so that when he gets back everything will be fine. All you have to do is help him get here, give him a push; he has a terrible sense of direction. Deal?"
Johnny Cash continued to glower down from the wall.
"I'll take your stoic silence as an affirmative."
Rodney knew he might just be going crazy, but a functioning Rodney was good for everyone, regardless of what delusions he may have harboured.
He showered, dressed, and shaved properly for the first time in who-knows-how-long and there he was, standing in his own quarters pacing back and forth trying to work out the best way to apologise to Zelenka and wondering if there was any way to do it without losing face.
He kicked out at the clothes at his feet, trying to extend his path by a few lengths, when his foot collided with a coffee cup hiding under a sweaty, stained t-shirt and set it flying through the air to smash into a low hanging bookshelf covered in stacks of documents. Papers fluttered down, a rain of contraband in an allegedly paperless city, and settled in orderless tussocks and mounds on top of the low-lying peat bog of suspicious smelling laundry.
Muttering under his breath, he considered just leaving it all there to fester and mutate, before realising that he had no idea whether or not the papers were something important, or just random memos and reports from the labs with no great value. He eased himself down to his knees and began to sort through it.
He found a paper on quantum mechanics that he hadn't had the time to properly eviscerate, thirteen complaints about or by Kavanaugh—and wow, that proved how long it had been since he'd looked at that shelf—and a stack of calculations and equations for something he couldn't quite remember clearly. At the bottom of the piles that fell, tucked away in a corner was a plain, white envelope with his name written across the front. Frowning, he reached over and tugged on it, dislodging it from the grip of the ancient architrave and only losing a corner. The handwriting was familiar, but he was almost positive he would have remembered receiving anything handwritten from Sheppard.
Lifting it to his face, he inhaled deeply, surprised at how well the paper held his smell even after all this time. Gingerly, he pried the seal open, taking care not to rip it too much and potentially damage whatever small token he might have all to himself. He pulled the letter out and realised his hand was shaking slightly, a small wobble but noticeable in an embarrassing way.
Taking a deep breath, he unfolded the paper and read.
"Janie Bradbury, third grade; she broke my heart, I broke her Barbie. Tommy Gilliam, my best friend until he stole my sky blue crayola."
John recited the names and facts in an offhanded manner, wracking his brain for the details that kept slipping away from his mind. He'd given up attempting to list everyone he'd ever met, when he realised he didn't remember everyone he'd met.
He'd spent the past two hours going cross-eyed trying to remember his kindergarten friends and foes and feeling the weight of the task heavily. He knew it was only going to get harder and longer the older he got and the better his memory of the times became. It was also going to get infinitely more complex as he tried to tease out the individual threads of each relationship to try and make sense of it.
He kind of wished he'd been asked to change a leopard's spots.
He skimmed over the rest of grade school, not remembering half the people he met from moving so often, and not really getting to know them in the first place. High School wasn't much different.
He listed the girl he got his first kiss from, the boy who gave him his first blowjob, and his Senior Algebra teacher. The boy who broke his heart in Freshman year, and the girl who put it back together in Sophomore.
If he had a piece of paper—or several reams—he might be able to make sense of it all. As it was, he tried to keep the major players firmly in mind, and discarded the cameos.
"James Reed, FTO at Ellsworth. Asshole. Sue Martin..."
The list would never end.
"You never cease to amaze me, you know that?" Rodney snorted, hovering in the balcony doorway as he watched John assume a not-quite-lotus position and stare out to sea with a deep breath. "You don't even know that we can't reverse the process and you're already hellbent on ascending. Figures."
"You don't know that we can reverse it. I'm covering my-"
"-Options, McKay." John said with a long-suffering sigh, resolutely not turning to face Rodney. "If my options are ascend, die, or trust that the Ancients put a rewind button on their poorly labelled machine, I'm going to go with ascend. Thanks all the same."
Closing his eyes, John's nostrils flared as he attempted to calm himself and find his centre. He didn't want to ascend. Or die. Or leave his fate in the hands of the Ancients' and their supreme lack of foresight. He didn't want to take any of the options, if he were at all honest, but even he wasn't so pigheaded as to risk leaving everyone behind. The thought of never seeing Atlantis, his team, Rodney, Elizabeth, even that annoying little palaeobotanist who squeaked and darted around a corner whenever she saw him, again made him flash cold and shudder.
"You're not even going to give us a chance to fix it." Rodney's shoulders slumped, his body shifting to lean tiredly against the doorframe. John couldn't see it, but he knew Rodney well enough to know what his dejected slumps sounded like.
"Rodney." John murmured, gesturing for Rodney to come further onto the balcony and crouch beside him, resting a hand on John's knee to keep his balance. "I am giving you a chance. But, I can't do anything to help down there." Bracing his hand on the thick, tight sinew of Rodney's neck, he tugged him forward and pressed their foreheads together. "You gotta know that this is killing me, right?" He tightened his grip as Rodney pulled back with an indignant sputter. "Don't you get it? I can't do anything. I have to leave it with you and your guys, and keep out of the way."
"Oh." Rodney said in a small voice, avoiding John's eyes and focussing on his hands.
"I figure being out here, finding my centre, my chi, whatever, gives us the best chance at beating this thing, one way or another. And, y'know, I'd really kinda prefer it if you were one of the ones down there doing the fixing." John shifted uncomfortably; giving Rodney what he hoped was a reassuring smile, though if it looked half as ugly as it felt John didn't think it'd be any help at all.
"Right. Yes, good point. I suppose." Rodney squeezed John's knee and avoided looking him in the eye. Knowing they were alone within a three level radius, John pressed a kiss to the downward curving slope of Rodney's mouth and gave him a little shove.
"Now, you're messing up my Chi. Go fix this thing so we can go back to being eaten by freaky space monsters." Clearing his throat, John let his hand slide down Rodney's neck to land with a soft thump on the lattice-gripped metal of the balcony floor, fingers twitching towards Rodney involuntarily as he stood and stepped away.
"Okay, I go sort out the machine, you stay here and meditate. Simple." Rodney's eyeroll was evident in his tone of voice as he walked towards the door.
"You're still here? Sorry, didn't notice; was too busy aligning my Chakras." John smirked.
"Funny. I'll kick your Ass Chakra if you ascend before I fix this thing." Rodney called over his shoulder before disappearing through the door.
"How about you focus on saving my Ass Chakra and leave the kicking to me, huh?" Closing his eyes, John centred himself—silently thanking Teyla for putting him through his meditative paces for the past two days—as he listened to the door whoosh shut and the gentle roar of the ocean rushing at the base of the tower.
Rodney couldn't remember the last time he felt this much pain. Which made sense given that one of the body's best features was its ability to forget physical pain, but that was only if you gave any credence to the pseudo-scientific mumbojumbo doctors spewed at a nearly interminable—oh jesus fuck that hurt.
The machine was sparking off to his leftstupid fucking Ancientsand the lights were strobing. People moved back and forth above him shouting and screaming, but none of that mattered; none of it was as pressing as the extreme, excruciating burning of his chest and arms. The blood trickling down his sides and dripping to the floor from the small of his back felt almost pleasant compared to his polyblend shirt melting and fusing with the charred flaps of skin where his chest used to be; fucking hell, he could see his ribs from the inside.
Someone was shouting for a medic and heavy feet were thudding up and down the hall making the floor vibrate and wrenching a scream from his throat; someone exhausted a fire extinguisher nearby and the heavy metal container clanged to the ground exacerbating the pain with its reverb. Someone was slapping his face, telling him to hold on, and then he was being hauled up onto a gurney and rushed through the halls at an alarming speed. Every jolt and bump was like steel spikes being forced through his ribcage and he was trying to tell them to stop, to give him something for the pain, to put him out of his misery, but he didn't think he was making any sense, or even any words, and wasn't that just the kicker; he was going to die and his last words were going to be a stream of disconnected vowels and consonants strung together in an opus of agony.
Nurses leaned over him, an oxygen mask shoved none-too-gently over his face, and there were fingers fuck fingers pressing his skin back into place and gauze pressed in to stop the bleeding. Carson's voice shouted over his head but he couldn't focus on anything and the numbers the numbers! didn't make sense. He could hear Elizabeth and Radek in the background and John! John was shouting and he could hear No! I know what to do! Let me! and Rodney was completely on board with John being there; he had to kick John's Ass Chakra. Or maybe John had to kick his. Possibly a mutually exclusive assault of various Chakras and Rodney thought he might just-
Rodney surged forward and inhaled gulping, heaving breaths; eyes bulging and head pounding with the effort. Rodney couldn't hear anything over the pounding in his ears. This was it; he'd died and launched himself out of his body and he'd have to spend eternity with nothing but this roaring silence and-
"John- How did you- Rodney's back! He's alive!" Carson's awed and exultant voice accompanied by a pair of gentle hands pressing him back to lie prone broke into Rodney's panic and his eyes slowly focussed on the room around him. The nurses and doctors and spectators standing around the gurney were staring in wonder—and no small amount of fear—at John, who in turn was staring at his hands flecked with glistening drops of Rodney's blood, still pressed into Rodney's whole and complete, smooth skinned chest, in horror.
"Oh my god. I can't- This isn't- I have to-" John jerked his hands from Rodney and lurched away, stumbling over his feet as much as he did his words, before running out the door.
Rodney yelled for him to come back, and when that failed, tried to raise himself, pulling off various monitors and the oxygen mask, so he could follow. Strong hands held him down, Carson's no nonsense tone commanding him to remain where he lay.
"But I have to go after him! I feel fine!" Rodney shouted, struggling against the grip of the largest nurse he'd ever seen.
"That's what John said. Just lie down and let us make doubly sure and then you can go." Carson's tone brooked no argument, eyes stern though betraying some worry as he took Rodney's pulse with two fingers to his neck.
"Teyla!" Rodney pleaded, peering around the people crowding him, trying to make her see the import of following him rightthefucknow. She didn't even bother to respond, racing through the door before Carson had finished counting.
Laying back down, Rodney relaxed as well as he was able and glared up at Nurse Muscles McMeathead with as much venom as he could muster.
"Settle, Rodney. This won't take long."
John leaned against the railing, fingers slipping against the cool metal from the dampness of his palms as he flexed and gripped. He stared blankly out to sea, chest heaving from the turbulent run from the infirmary. It was cowardly, running away like that, he knew, but seeing Rodney's blood and his chest burned and shredded and bleeding, and having the knowledge for how to fix it pop fully formed into his mind, was too much to try to parse in front of so many people.
It was strange, the way it happened; one second he was almost hyperventilating with fear and worry, the next he just knew. It was like a sudden shift in perspective, his mind became clear and all he had to do was lay down his hands.
"John?" Teyla's gentle query interrupted his internal musing.
"Teyla." He responded without turning around, voice catching on the syllable shift.
"That was miraculous." She said softly coming to stand beside him.
"It was something." John shrugged.
"You have been withholding information about the effects the machine has had on you." Teyla's statement came with a raised eyebrow, a hand on his arm. The breeze lifted her hair, tossing it into her face.
John didn't move.
"Do you not wish for help?" Teyla's hand dropped to his elbow as she stepped closer, her touch gently but firmly guiding him to let go of the rail and face her.
"Do you really think anyone here is in a position to help anymore?" John gave a humourless laugh, looking past her like a recalcitrant teenager. "I healed a man with my hands, Teyla. I healed Rodney with my bare hands! How on earth can anyone help me now?"
"No one on Earth can help you. Fortunately, you're on Atlantis and you have me." Rodney appeared in the doorway, dried blood flaking down his neck and under the neckline of a scrubs shirt, a life-signs detector in his hand and a disgruntled expression deeply set in his features.
"Rodney! I- You're okay!" John stuttered eyes riveted to Rodney's chest.
"Of course, I'm okay. You healed me, you idiot. Now, what else can you do? And I swear, if you hold back anything, after I fix this enormous fuck up, your life will be the epitome of uncomfortable. Now, spill." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest as he stepped out onto the balcony, eyes firmly glued to Sheppard's gape-mouthed form.
"Listen, Rodney, I didn't even know I could do that until I, you know, did it." John hedged, shifting under the piercing scrutiny. Glancing at Teyla, who merely raised an eyebrow as if she, too, would like some firm answers; John attempted to slouch casually.
"John." With a single word, Rodney reduced John to his teenaged self receiving a dressing down from a horribly disappointed teacher.
"Okay, fine. It started with super hearing, but I thought it was just a trick of the acoustics in the mess. Then there was the mind-emotion reading thing, painful, but I can block most of it now. Maybe telekineses, but I haven't tried anything specific. Healing, and I can, possibly, maybe, fly a little." John rushed out the list, not daring to look up at Rodney's disapproving face. He hadn't meant to keep these new abilities a secret. He just kind of... had.
"Jesus Christ, John!" Rodney exploded as Teyla let out a quiet Oh, my. "You didn't think that telling us any of this might help us- Wait, you can fly?"
"Well, levitate. A little." John shuffled his feet. "And I think I'm getting smarter."
Rodney looked gobsmacked. His mouth flapped soundlessly as he abortively gestured at John before looking at Teyla as if she could offer some reasonable explanation.
Teyla ignored Rodney in favour of stepping closer to John and regarding him seriously. "This is truly wondrous, but do you not think it would be wise to inform Dr. Beckett of the changes taking place?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure." John rubbed a hand over his neck, embarrassed that he'd been caught out. "I'll go do that. But, first, do you think you could, uh, give me a moment alone with Rodney?"
Teyla inclined her head gracefully, and placed her hands on John's shoulders to bring their foreheads together. "Remember, John, you are not alone and if you wish for support, all you need do is ask."
"I'll keep that in mind." John watched as Teyla passed Rodney. Exchanging an indecipherable look with Rodney as she slipped out the door.
"You're okay?" John asked after a moment's pause.
"As well as can be expected for someone who was just brought back from the dead," Rodney responded stiffly, taking a few steps forward before halting less than two feet away from John.
"Don't. Just don't." John closed the gap between them, pressing his hand to Rodney's chest to feel the steady thrum of his heartbeat under the thin, crackly barrier of the scrub top.
"Seriously," Rodney said as put his hand over John's and held it close to his chest. "Did you pulp and consume the entire Marvelverse back catalogue while I wasn't looking?"
"No, but I did get caught in the web of a giant, Ancient radioactive spider." John slid his hand around Rodney's shoulder and pulled him closer. "Thought I'd lost you there, buddy." John curled into Rodney, forehead pressing into the curve of his neck. He inhaled deeply, repressing a shudder as he caught the coppery scent of blood and electricity mixed with sweat and fear and Rodney.
Jesus. That had been close.
"Nearly did. But I'm okay, thanks to my superhero boyf- Uh, yes. I'm okay." Rodney coughed, fingers dancing over John's back as if he were suddenly unsure of their welcome.
John tightened his grip, holding Rodney as close as he possibly could without climbing into his skin with him.
"I'll come back." John promised Rodney's neck, lips dragging across the skin and leaving a bitter, salty tang on his tongue as he pulled back to look Rodney straight in the eye. "If you can't fix it, I'll come back. Come hell or high water, no, hell and high water."
"That really won't be necessary. The repairs are going smoothly and I should be able to have it done by tomorrow afternoon." Rodney's hands gripped John's hips, holding tight enough to leave bruises as if daring John to try and ascend right then.
"Damnit, Rodney. That thing nearly killed you!"
"And it's going to kill you!" Rodney pulled away suddenly, turning to pace, hands running through his hair agitatedly. "Don't you get it? This is a lose-lose situation; I don't try to fix the machine, you either die or ascend. I try to fix the machine and it might kill me, or it doesn't work at all and you die. The only chance we have, is if we do something."
"I am doing something!" John shouted, wondering how the hell they managed to do this so often: going from wanting to crawl into each others' skin, to wanting to smack some sense into their thick skulls.
"You're trying to ascend!" Rodney's incredulous tone rose in pitch and bounced a near-screeching echo from the girders. "You think I can just sit idly by and watch you leave? I don't know how many times I have to point it out: if I don't do anything you are going to die or ascend, either way you go. And I- ... We- ... Atlantis can't survive without you."
"And you think it's going to do any better without you?" John grabbed Rodney's fluttering hands and folded them in his own, holding them still. Staring at Rodney, he tried to imagine an Atlantis without one or both of them. "We don't have a choice, do we?"
"We never really do."
"Okay, this is good. This will do." Rodney muttered under his breath, pulling a part out of the open panel bottom of the machine and comparing it to the schematic he'd drawn up on the tablet. With a few twists and a little tugging, the piece came free, weighing heavily in his hands.
Crawling to the side, he placed the piece with a few others on a spread out sheet. One more and he'd be ready. He disappeared back into the bowels of the crapped out machine, moving crystals and wires this way and that to find the pieces he needed. This machine was some sort of futuristic Ancient trouser press; sleekly elegant in design and construction, but way too convoluted for what it actually did. They'd only ever managed to get it to work on char grilled and slightly soggy settings—ten thousand years of inactivity taking its toll—leaving them to settle for their own, made-in-China irons for occasions requiring a crisp seam in their pants. Which were rare.
Swearing as a circuit zapped his finger, he wondered why it hadn't hit him sooner. The Ascension accelerator was large and bulky to give the operator a sense of power; their own lives held in their hands as they stood at the console claiming their unearned godhood. Nobody in their right mind would place the testing zone right in front of the controls, nobody except a crazed scientist-slash-zealot.
Rodney had the crazed scientist bit down pat; he'd have to work a bit on the zealotry.
"Accelerate the mind, accelerate the body. Accelerate the body, accelerate the mind. One is just a byproduct of the other. If they sought to do one, they had to do the other. The problem was achieving balance. That's what I have to do, I have to make it balance. When I get my hands on him, I'm going to kick his ass for making me go through this."
Maybe he wouldn't have to work that hard.
"Dad. Dave. Nancy. Mitch. Dex. Holland. Sumner. Ford. Lorne. Elizabeth. Zelenka. Carson. Teyla. Ronon. Rodney." John recited the names again and again, keeping in mind their place and importance. He focussed on how they changed his life—for good or bad—and what he'd do to keep them safe.
He no longer noticed the aesthetic of the place, had become numb to the relentless monotony of white on white. He no longer moved as much, either, resigning himself to the fact that nothing he did in here mattered. He sat against the featureless wall and looked at the featureless landscape and he murmured.
""Dad. Dave. Nancy. Mitch. Dex. Holland. Sumner. Ford. Lorne. Elizabeth. Zelenka. Carson. Teyla. Ronon. Rodney. Dad. Dave. Nancy..."
The late patrols were slouching their ways to bed after changeover when Rodney finally stumbled, red-eyed and tired, into his room. He paused by his desk on the way to the bathroom to toe off his shoes—grumbling under his breath about laces done too tight—and disappeared to splash water on his face and brush his teeth. Shucking his shirt and pants, he made his way to the bed and stopped.
"Didn't expect to see you here." He said through a throat rough and hoarse from hours spent under consoles and yelling at his good-for-nothing scientists.
"No place I'd rather be." John reached up and ran a hand down Rodney's side to his hip, a finger catching on the elastic of his boxers and tugging with a slight smile. "Get these off and get down here."
"John, it's not that I don't want to—god, you know I want to—but it's late and, the machine, I'll finish it tomorrow. And then you'll be fine. So, tomorrow. We'll do this tomorrow." In the dimness of the room, Rodney looked uncertain; hovering beside his own bed as if waiting for permission just to sleep.
"Don't think." John let his arm grow heavy, pulling the boxers down until they reached mid-thigh and Rodney took over. He sloughed them off like a second skin and crawled under the covers facing John. "Turn around."
Rodney squirmed and snaked his way around on the spot until he was lying with John pressed up against his back, arm curled up to his chest with his fingers laced through John's. John's thumb brushed absently against Rodney's nipple as he nuzzled the back of Rodney's neck, nosing away the sweat stiffened curls to lip at the soft skin below the hairline.
"John," Rodney sighed in conflicted pleasure, tightening his grip on John's hand while dropping his head forward to allow greater access.
"Please, Rodney." John untangled his fingers from Rodney's and splayed the across his chest, pressing up against his back as he whispered in Rodney's ear. "I may not- This could be our last- Just, don't. Not tonight."
"John, don't talk like that," Rodney said, attempting to rise and turn to face John. "I'm going to fix everything and everything will be fixed. And fine. This isn't- This won't be the last time."
John slipped his hand from under Rodney's, trailing it down Rodney's side and leaning back to ghost it between his cheeks. "Then we call it even and add one more to the tally." He pushed the finger between and rubbed more firmly just to feel Rodney shudder. "What do you say?"
"Your argument-" Rodney moaned and arched into the touch. "-has merit." Shifting forward, Rodney rummaged in the bedside table and tossed a tube over his shoulder at John who deftly flipped the covers back, popped the cap and coated his fingers.
After tapping Rodney's thigh to get better access, John slid a finger down and in, watching Rodney's profile as his mouth dropped open with a sigh. They rarely took the time to do it like this, slow and steady, focussed on the touch and the feel of it. It was usually hastily stripped clothing—if they got that far—rushed prep and a swift clean up. John kind of preferred it like this; the in, the out, the gliding touches, it was an indulgence. There was something luxurious and wicked about it that made this guilty pleasure so much... more.
Pushing a second finger in beside the first, John pressed his face to the crook of Rodney's neck, feeling him move with the preparation and focussing simply on the touch. He felt Rodney's gasp bodily as he grazed over his prostate with a crook of a finger. His leg hitched up, his body conforming to Rodney's as he undulated with each roll of the hip, cock pressed hard against the back of his arm as he slipped in a third finger.
Maintaining his shield was difficult in such close quarters, especially with Rodney. Every so often he felt a wave of emotion buffet against his mind like rough winds against the hull of a boat in stormy weather. He felt desire and despair like a blanket and held on.
The only audible sounds in the room were Rodney's tiny whimpers and moans and the soft, shush-shush susurrations of dry skin rasping together, until Rodney tilted forward, trying to rub himself against the sheet. Withdrawing his fingers, John placed a sticky, steadying hand on Rodney's hip and held him in place. It'd be too easy for them to just get off quick and efficient and go to sleep, but John didn't want that. He wanted to feel it, wanted it to last... wanted Rodney to have something to remember him by, if only for a while.
Cock nestled between Rodney's cheeks, John kept the undulation going as he let his hand drift from Rodney's hip, ghosting over the head of his cock, up his stomach to hover over a nipple, far enough away that the motion was just a tantalising glimmer of what could be. "Are you ready?" John whispered in Rodney's ear, letting his fingers stroke around the aureole, but never quite touch.
"Jesus, John," Rodney panted. "If you don't do something soon, I won't be held accountable for my actions."
Taking that as his cue, John gave one of Rodney's nipples a light tweak, pulled his hand back and lined himself up. Pushing in slowly, John felt the muscles gradually give to accommodate him until he was flush against Rodney, gasping into his neck.
Rodney's answering moan reverberated throughout his body, fingers clawing at the pillow as he tensed and relaxed. His hips moved in minute circles as he arched and bared his neck for John and nuzzled into the pillow, touch-hungry and wanton. A hand drifted back to grasp John by the hip, sliding back farther to cup as well as he could, and urge him to motion.
John began to rock his hips, keeping the movements slow and steady in a way that he knew would eventually drive Rodney wild. With his lips he traced a route along Rodney's elegantly curved neck to the base of his ear; kisses and licks stood as journey markers, a perverse stream of half-formed verbalisations the travel journal.
He cupped Rodney loosely between lax fingers, wanting to feel and hear the reactions his teasing provoked; a mind so calculated and organised in wakefulness, descended into pleas and whimpers, partially constructed threats and insensible gibberish. John loved to watch Rodney come undone, seeing him fall apart amidst pleasure and desire, knowing that he was the only person allowed to see when those walls—those foreboding, unscaleable walls—came down and that when they went back up, he'd be the mortar to hold it together and keep Rodney safe.
Rodney's hand scrabbled at his back, desperate for the touch, for something to hold on to. John adjusted his position and worked his hand under Rodney's upper torso to grasp Rodney's free hand. The change in angle made him gasp and speed up, his other hand—forgoing teasing for results—gripped Rodney firmly and stroked in counterpoint to his steadily increasing thrusts.
Rodney's leg shifted wider to give himself more leverage as he thrust forward into John's tight fist, and back onto his cock. John found himself trying to hold back, to make it slower, but he was suddenly driving deeper into Rodney than before, and it was almost too much to bear. He'd wanted a slow, unhurried orgasm that rolled over them like a surprise, to wallow in a hedonistic mire, but Rodney opening before him, hot and hungry, made him want the pleasure that was like a punch to the face; a sharp, lasting shock followed by a euphoric coma and aftershocks that rolled on and on and on.
Feeling Rodney's back tense, the curve shifting and striving towards an unquantifiable goal, John sped up his hand on Rodney's cock. His thrusts became deeper and harder as he urged Rodney on with an obscene, panting monologue spoken into his skin, nose brushing the sweat drops on Rodney's temple while his tongue flicked against Rodney's earlobe with every hasty syllable.
Rodney came with a hoarse cry, shooting over his stomach and sheets, and dripping over John's hand as every last sliver of ecstasy was wrung from his body. His muscles trembled around John and ambivalent emotions fluttered around John's mind, pulling a high-pitched whine from John's throat as he drew closer to the edge.
John pulled back to watch himself driving into Rodney's body, each snap of his hips feeling like an end unto itself, the smack of flesh against flesh like a series of whip cracks through the room. His hand shot to Rodney's hip, holding the lax body still as he continued to seek his own oblivion. Pressing his face to Rodney's neck he felt himself flying closer and closer until he hit it.
The shock and wonder of such perfect bliss making him feel like he was floating and plummeting at the same time; muscles tense and teeth clenching as he hit the pinnacle before he abruptly and completely relaxed, sinking down into Rodney's back. His hands unclenched from Rodney's fingers and hip and curled around his chest, roaming up and down the wide expanse of skin, needing the tactile sensations to survive the aftershocks coursing through his body in wave after wave of full body shudders. He nuzzled Rodney's neck, pressing slow, languid kisses wherever he felt necessary, as he pulled out.
Rodney was stretching and humming like a cat in the sun, a pleased smile sitting lazy on his lips as he turned his head and pressed a sloppy kiss to the general area of John's mouth.
"One of your better ideas," Rodney muttered, words slurred and indistinct spoken into John's skin.
John's only response was a fond smile, brushing Rodney's damp, sweaty hair off his forehead. He determined to remember Rodney like this, sweaty and sated, his intellect blurring around the edges with satisfaction, and to keep that firmly in mind as he worked towards ascending; he wasn't leaving Rodney, he was keeping them together.
Pressing a gentle kiss to Rodney's temple, John carefully got out of the bed and padded to the bathroom. Turning in the doorway as the light came on, he looked back to the bed to see Rodney curling around the sole pillow and nestling into it. He cleaned himself up and grabbed a washcloth and by the time he returned to the bed, Rodney was asleep, snoring softly.
Carefully shifting Rodney's sleep-heavy limbs, he wiped him down and took the opportunity to memorise each sliver of skin, every mole and freckle and scar, the way his chest hair curled when it was wet, and the downward tug of his mouth even in sated sleep. His fingers traced along every curve and plane, marvelling at the wide expanses of skin, and feeling something inside of him break at the thought that if he fucked this up, he might never get to touch it again.
"I-" The syllable fell from his mouth unbidden, the rest of the flow stopped by some primal defence mechanism. He found himself kneeling beside the bed, mouth open, hand frozen with his fingers poised over the elegant curve of Rodney's nose, and a screaming need to just say it, even if Rodney couldn't technically hear him, and he still couldn't do it. He tried again, and again, and each time his throat constricted more than the last. The conflicting impulses to reveal and protect became stronger until all he could do was clench his fist and push himself away from the bed.
He paced quietly as Rodney murmured in his sleep, fighting with himself in what he knew was, and was always going to be, a losing battle. His fists clenched tighter as he stared into the distance; he couldn't bring himself to say it, yet he didn't think he'd be able to do what he needed to if Rodney didn't know.
With a low growl of frustration—which disturbed Rodney in his sleep, if the frown that creased his forehead was anything to go by—he spun and began to, as noiselessly as possible, rummage through Rodney's desk. He found what he was looking for in the bottom drawer, stashed behind a broken transporter crystal and a Sloppy Joe Filling MRE.
Smirking to himself that he'd managed to outwit his deep seeded emotional handicap, he scrawled out a note on the blank piece of paper he'd managed to find, and stuck it in the envelope that had been with it. He jotted Rodney's name on the front and propped it up on top of a stack of papers on the desk. Rodney would find it, eventually. A small, cowardly, part of himself hoped that he found it after whatever happened; hopefully, it would be a bright spot.
John adjusted the positioning of the envelope until it met his exacting standards, and returned to the bed. Tossing the washcloth vaguely towards the bathroom, he crawled over Rodney and curled up behind him. Wrapping an arm around him, John buried his face in Rodney's neck and began to play out the next day as he fell asleep; Rodney's note was only the first step he had to take.
Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
The length was all wrong, or the space too small. Rodney stared at the piece in his hand in disgust. It was exactly the same thing cannibalised from a different machine—Ancient toaster or Ancient divining rod, the jury was out on that one—but it wouldn't fit in the space left when he'd discarded the broken part.
He frowned and considered his options; he could go out scrounging again and find a perfect fit, or he could leave it hanging out slightly. It wouldn't make any difference to how the machine performed; it'd just look a little better.
Deciding on function over form, he connected the piece and left the end hanging out before picking up the next bit. He was turning it over and over in his hands, making sure he knew the weight and feel of it so he could slide it in without it catching, when he heard the door slide open.
"Rodney?" Teyla's voice rang through the room as she entered, Ronon trailing behind her like a sullen basset hound.
"What?" He answered in a disgruntled tone. He didn't even know why they were looking for him; he'd been off the radar as far as public breakdowns and explosive attacks went. He'd been seeing Heightmeyer, remaining calm and level—well, relatively calm and level—and doing his job. There was no reason anybody should come looking for him here at all; nobody should have even suspected what he was doing.
"We do not wish to cause offence, but we feel that you have taken a backwards step in your recovery," Teyla said in an even tone as she came to stand before him.
"Excuse me?" Rodney shifted around until he was facing the pair, baffled outrage writ across his face. "Recovery? What am I now, a drug addict?"
"Perhaps 'recovery' was not the best choice of word." Teyla had the decency to look ashamed. "In the months since John... went away, you had become quite a different person. We were beginning to see a resurgence of the old Rodney and hope to forestall a backslide."
Her attempt at explaining the difference was more inelegant than Rodney had ever heard her. Her halting speech and awkward phrasing confused him, and he didn't know what to make of that; she was being so obviously careful and respective that it was almost like she was speaking to the leader of a foreign tribe.
"...What?" Rodney blinked. He couldn't even begin to hazard a guess at what she was talking about.
"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde." Ronon supplied. "We want to keep Rodney and stop Dr. McKay from coming back."
Both Rodney and Teyla turned to stare at Ronon; Rodney with shocked horror, Teyla with confusion.
"What? I'm learning to read English." Ronon said with a shrug. "Either way, we're not going to let you go back to being him."
"Not going to let me? You're both being completely ridiculous. How did you even know I was down here?" Rodney asked, shifting from incredulous to demanding in a second.
"We have been watching you," Teyla said softly, not meeting Rodney's eyes.
Rodney felt strangely touched; maybe they did really care.
"You've been watching me? Not that I don't find that creepy—yet strangely erotic—but, why? Did you think I was going to lose my shit and blow us all to kingdom come?" Rodney felt all the good will drain as he realised that they probably didn't care about him, but about what he could do to them.
"Made a promise to watch out for you. We're keeping it." Ronon stared down at Rodney seriously, making him feel like squirming under the scrutiny.
"Oh. And, uh, who made you promise?" Rodney was fishing, he knew he was fishing and he couldn't help it because he needed to know, more than anything, that it was true.
"Who do you think? Sheppard."
"John, you are ready."
John stopped his chant mid-syllable and scrambled to his feet. He had no idea how long he'd been repeating the names, but they were now indelibly branded onto his psyche and he knew that, facing the woman before him, he was ready.
"Hit me, Pithy," John quipped, giving her a charming smile as he mentally tried to put his brain into 'interacting with others' mode.
"Refrain from addressing me thus, John. Unless you have decided that you like your current accommodation...?" The Pythia replied in an arch tone.
She was feisty. John could respect that.
"No, Ma'am." He shot off a crisp salute, just to seal the deal.
"Very well. I have seen that you have examined your relationships in great detail and have identified those who have had the greatest impact on your life. Tell me now who they are, and how they have changed you."
"Okay," John drawled and whistled through his teeth. "Any particular way you want this, or should I just shoot them out?"
"Just 'shoot them out', as you say." She gave a wave of her hand and seated herself in midair again. That would never stop being weird.
"Okay," he said again, before closing his eyes and beginning to recite. "Dad. Dave. Nancy. Mitch. Dex. Holland. Sumner. Ford. Lorne. Elizabeth. Zelenka. Carson. Teyla. Ronon. Rodney." Finishing the list, he began to pace.
"Dad taught me that some things you love just don't love you back." He took a shuddering breath. It felt good to finally say it, what he'd known all along, but acknowledging it was like a thousand cuts on the inside.
"Dave showed me that the son my father could love is a man I don't want to be. Nancy... Nancy." He paused again. He wished he'd thought to articulate these responses more, rather than just repeating the names over and over until they stuck. "Nancy proved to me that I wasn't unlovable, but that sometimes love isn't enough. Mitch and Dex gave me friendship and introduced me to loss."
He glanced over at The Pythia, who was watching him impassively. Her expression gave no indication of whether or not he was approaching this in the right way, or giving her the answers she wanted. He ran a hand through his hair and forged on.
"Holland showed me that I can't save everyone, but that I shouldn't stop trying. Sumner gave me hell and then put his life in my hands. He gave me responsibility and the desire to prove I could handle it. Ford was my failure. Lorne is the officer I could have been sooner, if I hadn't been so cocky. Elizabeth shows me strength under enormous pressure, and I am so glad I don't have to make the decisions she does. I hope you realise that these are the most revealing things I've said to anyone. Ever." John cocked an eyebrow at her, aiming for levity and snatching up the bonus that was the extra time.
"This is as it was to be. Continue." She replied, continuing to withhold all emotion.
"Fine, fine. I'm getting there, don't get your panties in a bunch." John waved her off and continued to pace. "Okay, okay. Who was next? Zelenka! Zelenka is the mouse to McKay's lion. He's there to pull out the thorn—or poke him with a stick—and helped show me that McKay isn't as unapproachable as he likes to appear to be. Carson... Carson is... Well, he's a good guy. He showed me how good intentions can have bad consequences, but that the people who make the decisions aren't necessarily evil."
He stopped pacing and scrubbed his hands over his face. He wanted to do this fast; strip it off quick like a bandaid. But the more he spoke, the more it felt like gouging into a bullet wound and being unable to find the fragments.
There were just three more to go. Three more and he'd be done. He tried to pretend The Pythia was Heightmeyer, but he couldn't remember ever being this honest with her.
"Teyla is strength and sorrow. She shows me how to live through hopeless times with dignity. Ronon is a weapon. He's determination and courage in fighting an impossible fight. I don't know them very well, come to think of it. I'd like to know more..." He stopped suddenly, realising how true it was. What he knew of Ronon was what the man had told him, i.e. very little, and while he knew a lot about Teyla's culture, he didn't know specific things, like how she grew up or if she was seeing anyone. It disturbed him that he'd taken so much on faith: making assumptions and assuming that he actually knew them from his own projections.
The Pythia cleared her throat, and he realised he'd drifted off.
"Sorry." He shifted on his feet, knowing there was only one left and yet being reluctant to continue.
"Rodney. Rodney is... Rodney is very important to me." Still couldn't do it, even trapped in a box in the middle of nowhere where nothing really mattered. Typical.
"How important?" The Pythia leaned forward, peering at him intently.
"Very. Important." John looked her straight in the eye, staring her down until she shook her head and looked away with a condescending laugh.
"You are quite damaged, John Sheppard." She said with mirth in her eyes, and if that wasn't the most infuriatingly jovial assessment of his mental state, John would eat his non-existent hat.
"Though I find it discomfiting, I can see that, though your words are few, your feelings are not. Very well, we shall continue. What do these people mean to you?"
"They are... I would die for them." John tried to express just how much he meant that, but couldn't find the words. He hoped The Pythia would do her deep-emotion seeing thing again and know the truth of it.
"An interesting word choice, considering that, essentially, you already have. I think there is a more pertinent question at hand..." She tilted her head to the side and regarded him thoughtfully. Standing up, she walked towards him until they were eye to eye.
"Would you live for them?"
John jogged down the corridor towards the large room Teyla had set aside as her own Gym-Slash-Meditation Room-Slash-Sanctuary. He'd been all over the city that morning; leaving a steaming hot thermos of coffee beside Rodney's bed when he ducked out in the early hours of the morning, and then jogging from place to place. He went from the control room to the labs to the infirmary and the mess, and even down to the botany labs.
He spoke to everyone he could find, letting them know that he knew who they were and that he valued them each individually both for their contributions to the expedition, and as individuals. He wasn't sure when the idea went from being a vague thought as he drifted off to sleep, to a full scale mission, but he figured it wouldn't hurt to up his karma a bit. Committing random acts of beauty, just like the bumper stickers told him.
He had started the whole thing while running with Ronon before the sun had risen. He had begun by subtly—well, awkwardly—telling Ronon that he was glad that Ronon had chosen to stay and that he thought his fighting skills were unparalleled. Ronon had stopped and looked at him as though he were crazy which had led to a long, out-of-his-depth conversation about what Karma was and why he was trying to buff it up a bit. Ronon had given him a hug. John had tried to tell him that that wasn't what he meant, but only found himself hugged tighter. In the end, he had healed the scars where the wraith tracker had been removed—being extremely careful not to heal the badges of honour Ronon had accumulated—just to stun Ronon enough so he could get away.
He was still ducking around corners every time he saw Ronon; the man looked determined to hug him some more.
He had been to see Elizabeth next; telling her in no uncertain terms that, though they may not see eye to eye all the time, he respected her as a leader. And then he'd fled.
He thanked Carson for keeping him healthy over the past years, and stopped just short of thanking him for each individual set limb, stitch sown, and retrovirus retro'ed. Carson had teared up a little. John fled. Again.
He had told Lorne he was doing a good job, and praised Zelenka for being the bigger man. Lorne had merely taken it as his due. Zelenka raised an eyebrow and muttered at him in Czech.
His last stop for the day was a couple of hours of meditation with Teyla; he figured he could speak to the people he missed tomorrow.
The space was dimly lit when he entered, late afternoon sun streaming through the windows in shades of gold and blue. Teyla sat on a mat with candles lit in sconces around her. Incense burned giving the room a heavy atmosphere that swirled gently with the occasional breeze from the door cracked open to the balcony. Toeing his shoes off, he sat before her and crossed his legs.
"I hear you have been quite busy today, John," She began with a quirk of a smile.
"News gets around, huh?" John blushed.
"Ronon was telling me of the 'Karma' concept over lunch. I believe you are doing very well." She smiled proudly at him, making him feel like he was four-years-old and had just presented his mother with a macaroni painting.
"Too little, too late, some might say." He grimaced, trying not to think about all the awful things he'd done in his life. He'd realised during his six months in the time-lapse cloister that one of the key parts of ascension was accepting yourself and your faults and fears. He'd clung to his dark past with a fierceness he couldn't account for, even after he'd come to the conclusion that Atlantis had abandoned him. Now, though, he was determined to make things right with himself; he had to come back, he'd treat it like it was just another mission and this was just something he had to do.
"It is never too late, John. You must not think that way, or you will never succeed. Clear your mind, now. We have much work to do." A dark furrow appeared in the middle of Teyla's forehead as she spoke, her displeasure at John's apparent lack of self-esteem seeming to disturb her greatly.
John did as he was bidden, closing his eyes and emptying his mind. He had become quite proficient at it over the past few days, more so than he had in the cloister; he had only fallen asleep that one time, and it was only for a few minutes.
His mind was a black void, all his negativity and worry shooting into it and blowing away to reveal clear, blue skies. His shield was strong and he could not hear the thoughts or feel the emotions of anyone but himself, and his own he cleared away. He focussed on his body, letting himself feel every part, knowing what every blood vessel was doing, how every breath of air affected his system. He let his mind and his body become one and felt lighter.
He wished he'd taken Rodney up on his offer to get some sort of ascend-ometer shipped in from the SGC. It would be kind of nice to know how he was doing: if he was nearly there or was way off the mark. He pushed the thought aside with the firm belief that an arbitrary number would hold him back.
His mind twinged and he focussed harder on his shield and the calming blue of the sky in his mind. The pain flared in his mind again, and he realised that it wasn't the shield. He couldn't understand why this was happening now, after all his hard work, he was failing and he didn't think there was any way to stop it.
Another stab of agonising pain, increasing in intensity each time, shot through his head and his hands shot to his forehead, some primal instinct urging him to claw it out, as he keeled forward on the matt. It was debilitating now. He couldn't move or think, only clutch his head as he heard Teyla shouting his name and calling for a medical team.
Then everything was blissfully dark and silent.
Rodney rushed into the infirmary at top speed, skidding past a gaggle of nurses and careening past the curtain to stand at the end of Sheppard's bed. Teyla and Ronon stood at the head, murmuring to John quietly as Carson took his vitals. He noted absently—though not without some smug satisfaction—that Carson had hooked John up to the ascend-ometer he'd had shipped in from Earth without John's knowledge.
The numbers were looking good for John. Bad for everybody who cared about him, but good for John. He was sitting at 92% synaptic activity, and his EEG was holding steady at 4Hz. It wouldn't be long now before John either ascended or burnt out.
Rodney felt like his heart was in his throat. He couldn't remember ever being this emotionally exhausted.
Elizabeth stepped to the side of the bed beside Carson, asking how things were looking. Her face was etched with the stress she tried not to show. Her brow was furrowed, eyes steely grey in the dim light surrounding the bed, as though she was trying to simultaneously maintain the strength of the leader and the compassion of a friend.
Rodney himself was attempting to casually lean against the bed, hand clasping John's ankle where the blankets bunched up at the end. A small place in the back of his mind hoped nobody noticed, but the enormous worry that was the rest of him couldn't bring itself to care.
"I don't know why, but it seems the more pervasive evolved state is causing lapses in the lower brain function." Carson was saying to Elizabeth. John was speaking in hushed tones to Teyla and Ronon, not even paying attention to Carson and Elizabeth. "It's almost as if his body is losing its natural ability to keep itself alive."
"When ascension occurs naturally, the physical body's no longer necessary in the final stages." Elizabeth nodded sadly, casting her eyes over the strangely still form of John in the bed.
"John, lad." Carson placed a hand on John's shoulder, squeezing lightly to get his attention. "You're at 93% synaptic activity, and you're still 2Hz away from the levels Rodney assures me are needed to ascend. If you're set on ascension, now would be the time to focus on it."
John clasped Ronon's and Teyla's hands in turn, still murmuring to them. The only phrase Rodney could make out was I'll hold you to that. Rodney couldn't focus much past the fact that John was going to die and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. He'd failed, and now there was only a wish and a prayer between John and death. He clutched John's ankle tighter, and John looked up as if just noticing he'd arrived.
"Hey, buddy. You come for the light show?" John's grin wavered, a little lopsided and a whole lot disorientated. There was fear in the creases around John's eyes, a terrible reminder of how much was at stake for him and just how much he knew it. He seemed determined to act as if it were just a simply trip to the infirmary, making Rodney feel hollow inside.
"Don't talk that way, lad." Carson gently chastised, focussing on the monitor. "94%, now. It's time."
"Okay, here goes nothing." John breathed. "Clear blue skies."
"You're a good person, John. Know that we love you." Elizabeth said softly, and Rodney would have scoffed if his heart weren't in his throat.
"You love me? All of you?" John asked, eyes closed and breathing even, a small grin tugging at the side of his mouth.
"All of us." Rodney stammered, avoiding everyone else's eyes.
"In the way a friend feels about another friend?"
Rodney sputtered and gripped John's ankle tighter, suddenly wanting, more than anything, to be able to hold John on this plane of existence. He'd been so sure that he'd be able to save the day that he hadn't even contemplated what would happen after, and now it was crashing into him all at once.
"Clear blue skies, John." Teyla reminded John gently but firmly and he repeated the words after her.
The numbers on the readout dropped lower and lower as John breathed in and out in the silent infirmary. Everybody present was holding their breath and focusing on John, as if the collective will of the entire room could turn away a potential tragedy.
"I'll be right back." John exhaled as the readout changed from 1Hz to .9Hz.
In the space of a heartbeat, John changed. His body disintegrated and turned to a shimmering gold cloud streaked with blue and silver. It lifted up and hovered above the bed before shooting out through the infirmary door and off the nearest balcony, the majority of the people in the room hurrying after it.
Later, Rodney would hear reports of the incident from people who had watched the golden cloud skyrocket up, streaking into the cosmos. He would hear different tales of the colours in the cloud, how big it was, and how fast it went, but for now, there was just Rodney's hand pressed into the bed, fingers grasping the blanket that had once been covering John's ankle but now held nothing at all.
"Don't fuck this up," he muttered by way of goodbye, smoothed out the blanket and turned off the steadily sounding heart monitor, before turning and leaving the room. Empty.
"Sheppard made you promise to keep an eye on me?" Rodney said slowly, looking carefully at the pair standing before him.
"Said he wanted you in one piece." Ronon shrugged.
Rodney couldn't believe they'd kept something like this from him for all this time. Granted, he hadn't really spoken to them much in the past few months, too caught up in his own grief, but he would have thought one of them would have mentioned it, even if just in passing.
"And you didn't think to tell me this before, why?" Rodney sputtered, hauling himself up from the floor with a speed that surprised even him.
"Would it have made any difference?" Teyla asked softly.
"What, are you insane? Of course it would have made a difference! He runs around the entire city respecting people, healing people, telling them he cares, and he doesn't say a single word to me! Of course it would have made a difference knowing that he actually thought of me!" Rodney ignored the knowledge of the note he had tucked under his pillow. It was two letters and a single word. Lorne and Zelenka got entire speeches, for crying out loud.
"Rodney, did you not know?" Teyla was stepping towards him slowly, hands out in a defensive position as if she thought he might lash out at her. Which was ridiculous. "He ascended for you. Does that not prove his affections?"
"He ascended. For me?" Rodney asked in a small voice, not quite believing it. He'd assumed that John chose ascension because he didn't want to simply die. Even Rodney wasn't so arrogant as to believe that it was for him. He could feel his knees beginning to shake and stumbled back to lean against the console.
"Did you think we were exchanging Tava bean recipes with John that day? He was quite explicit in his instructions. He would have told us at a different time, but his progress was far more accelerated than any of us had imagined." Teyla explained carefully.
"Then why hasn't he come back yet? It's been months." Rodney's current biggest fear wasn't a ZPM overload, or a wraith attack, it was that John had gotten used to the high life and would choose never to come back. As much as he'd tried to keep true to his certainty that John would return, time had eroded the carefully constructed arguments and left him heavy with the prospect that it was all a lie designed to keep Rodney vaguely sane.
"The Ancestors work in strange ways, Rodney. Perhaps it is through no fault of John's that he has not returned yet. It could be that time moves differently where he is, like the 'time dilation field', yes? There are many, many possible reasons for 'why not'. But the John Sheppard I know is a determined man." Teyla placed her hands on either side of Rodney's head and pulled his forehead to hers. "He will return, Rodney. Do not lose hope."
Rodney's eyes drifted closed as he pressed his forehead to hers, allowing himself to get caught up in her certainty. It felt good, knowing that he wasn't alone, that he wasn't crazy. It would have been nice to know it much sooner, but, beggars, choosers, et cetera. Teyla stepped away and he found himself smiling at her, feeling lighter than he had in, well, months.
"Come eat with us. It has been too long since we have shared a meal." She said, squeezing his shoulder before letting her hands drop back to her sides.
"Sure, uh. Food. Yeah, sounds good. Just, ah. Give me a second, yeah? I'll catch up." Rodney glanced from Teyla and Ronon to the machine with the pieces spread out in front of it.
"Very well." Teyla conceded, tugging Ronon to follow her out the door. He didn't think they would go far; he could still hear them talking in the hall.
Kneeling before the machine, he carefully bundled up the pieces he collected and placed them back in the bag. He dusted his hands off and looked at the machine with the large, misshapen part hanging out the front. With a decisive nod, he gripped it in his hands and tugged it out and shoved it in with the rest of the odds and ends in the bag. He pushed them into an alcove and powered everything down. Something told him he wouldn't be coming back here any time soon.
He hurried out into the corridor and wasn't surprised to find Teyla and Ronon standing only a few metres away, waiting for him. He trotted over to catch up, and they walked in companionable silence to the nearest transporter.
Stepping out into the hall near the commissary, they heard the klaxons go off in the gateroom and an announcement over the PA.
"Unscheduled Off-World Activation." That was nothing unusual of itself, Lorne's team was off-world, after all, but Rodney's ears pricked in case there was a follow-up announcement. "Dr. McKay, Teyla and Ronon to the gateroom."
"Would I live for them? What sort of question is that? Of course I would," John huffed, hands placed on his hips as he glared at The Pythia.
"Would your friends believe that of you?" The Pythia regarded him seriously, her face again revealing nothing. Her poker face was epic, John would have to grant her that.
"What, what do you mean?" John asked, confused. Why wouldn't his friends believe him? He protected them. He would do anything for them. They were the reason he did everything he did. They were the reason he kept putting himself in danger. Oh. "Oh."
"You see how a possible misunderstanding may arise?" The Pythia regarded him gravely, seeming to know every thought that passed through his mind. "Your friends care for you, and they believe that you care for them, but they also believe that you accept the prospect of your death too easily."
John stared at the floor dumbly, thinking of all the times he'd chosen to put himself in danger because it seemed like the easiest option; all the times there could have been a different, more effective, solution, if he'd just taken the time. He couldn't ignore the fact that, each time he had done it, there hadn't been time.
"Ah, ah, John," The Pythia chastised, waving her finger in front of John's nose. "Remember, before you ascended, you did not give Rodney a chance before you had set your course. You chose to leave your friends."
"What? No! That wasn't it, at all! I was giving us a chance!" John burst out, throwing his hands up in the air as if that would prove his point.
"You believed it to be your only chance. Now, what made you think that, hrm? Was it a lack of trust in the technology, or a lack of trust in Rodney?" The Pythia had become infinitely too smug for John's liking.
"What the fuck are you talking about? I trust Rodney! I trust him with my life!" John shouted, one of his hands clenching into a fist and he wanted to punch her, he so wanted to punch her.
"You trust him with your life, but not with your heart. Is that correct?" The annoyingly self-satisfied smirk was back in place.
John didn't know what it was about this place that had brought down all his barriers, maybe it was being left alone for so long with only himself for company, maybe it was an intentional effect of the room, but John Sheppard the calm, rational soldier was no longer able to take over and react without feeling, like the situation demanded. He tried to rein himself in, but he knew his every emotion was displayed across his face.
"Is this a test? Is that what this is? Or some kind of fucked up mind game you're playing for kicks? Rattle the bars at the caged monkey so you can laugh at how he reacts. Well, good for you, you succeeded. You can leave now." John's nostrils flared as he forced himself to cool down, taking deep breaths and standing his ground.
"I believe we agreed upon certain tests and tasks at the beginning of our acquaintance, did we not?" The Pythia grinned at him, most likely feeling secure in the fact that she could leave at a moment's notice and John just had to sit there and take it. "I seem to recall informing you that they would not be easy. Would it be wrong of me to assume that you no longer wish to continue?"
"Yes, actually." John glared. "It would."
He'd been through too much shit already—he'd spoken about his emotions, for crissake—to give up now. He'd made a promise to Rodney, to Teyla and Ronon, and he was going to keep it.
"Good. I believe you're ready for the second part: Know Thyself." The Pythia settled herself into a seated position again and regarded him thoughtfully. "This portion of the event, I think, will not be difficult for you. Well, not in the strictest terms, one might say. You are to go amongst your friends and see yourself for how you are perceived."
"And how am I supposed to do that?" John snapped, unthinkingly. "Will I be invisible? Or is this some sort of Ghosts of Christmas Future thing?"
"I do not know these ghosts of Krismass future, but I assure you, you will not be invisible. Sooner or later, you will see." The Pythia waved him forward, waiting until he grudgingly came and stood before her. "Are you ready, John Sheppard?" She asked solemnly.
"I am," He answered, though he didn't know how truthful he was being.
"Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Atlantis." The Pythia intoned, cupping the back of his head with one hand. "Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city." She pressed her fingers to the centre of his forehead and he closed his eyes.
Then there was darkness where all had been white.
John shot up and up and up, through space and the occasional heavenly body, lights spun past him and around him and he couldn't have stopped, even if he had wanted. He was everywhere at once and he knew everything but he just wanted it to end because it was as tragic as it was wonderful.
Every planet, ever person, every plant, every atom. Rodney was out there, somewhere, but he was lost in the multitudes.
He flew on and on, past the edge of the galaxy, and hopped like a skipping stone through the next. At some point he slowed and stopped, he wasn't sure if it was conscious or not, he just knew that one moment he was moving, the next he was floating, bodiless, weightless, awed.
"One day has arrived. It is good to see you, John Sheppard."
John looked around, so caught up in his literal contemplation of the infinite that he had not noticed the arrival of another.
"Teer?" She looked the same as she had the last time he saw her, glowing and ethereal. Floating.
"I see I am not forgotten." She glowed brighter, if it was possible, pleasure seeming to infuse her every tentacle.
Tentacles? What? Ew.
"How could I forget those six months?" John responded, a little distracted by the realisation that he had his own tentacles, and he could move them.
"You are distracted by your new form." Teer stated. "I take it you are not here wholly by choice?"
"What gives you that idea?" John watched his new appendages raise and lower and float about. It was seriously beginning to freak him out.
"Those who choose this path are not so concerned with their physical form after the change. They embrace the intellectual pursuits that they have worked so long to achieve." Teer hovered steadily as John zipped around the general area, getting a feel for the movements the new body afforded.
"Intellectual pursuits? Is that all you do up here? Think?" John asked working out a loop-the-loop. Rodney would have loved this, John thought. It was probably a good thing John had been hit by the machine; if Rodney had ascended, he may not have tried to come back. And that just didn't bear thinking about.
"We do not do anything. We think and we study and we learn." Teer said with the self-satisfied air of one who is absolutely content with their lot.
"I knew you had this whole non-interference thing going on, but I didn't realise how completely god damned complacent you all were." After focussing on remaining calm and collected during his meditation sessions, John had almost forgotten what it felt like to be angry. He felt it coursing through him like fire, and he realised he had the power to knock planets out of their orbits and to extinguish suns.
He may have just realised why leaving anger behind was one of the key steps to ascending.
"John, please. Come, let me show you." Teer gestured for him to follow, and soon they were shooting past stars and planets, over and up, around and through, until they were hovering at the edge of a solar system.
"This system has one habitable planet. It has no Ring of the Ancestors, and its inhabitants have not discovered space flight." Teer said as they drifted towards the planet.
"Why are we here?" John grumbled. He was supposed to be searching for a way to get back, not going sightseeing with a psuedo-ex-girlfriend.
"This planet is about to die. We are here to witness it." She said it with the calm grace of those completely removed from reality, or the heavily medicated.
"Excuse me? It's gonna die and we're just gonna watch?" John burst out, incredulous. There was no way he could just sit by when he knew it was going to happen.
"Tragedy, too, needs to be acknowledged. As we witness their passing, so shall they live on in our memories." Teer sounded as if she thought she was doing them a favour. Watching them die so that she could remember them dying.
"How about we stop them from, I dunno, dying and let them live on in their own lives?" John scanned the planet, trying to work out what was going to happen, then, maybe he could try to stop it.
"We must not interfere. A planetoid will crash into the ocean off the northern continent shifting the tectonic plates and causing tidal waves to engulf the lands; a chain reaction in a series of volcanoes off the southern shore will throw ash and steam into the atmosphere and irrevocably change ability for the planet to support life. All life will be extinguished, and we must watch and hold vigil for those lost. Come, it will happen soon." Teer began to glide towards the planet, gently pulling John with her.
"Not if I have anything to do with it." John ground out, tugging out of her grip and shooting off to find a way to stop it.
"John, no! We must not interfere!" Teer cried after him, torn between following him and doing her duty to the planet's inhabitants.
John ignored her, and sped towards the meteor. Calculating the amount of force he'd have to use to change its course, John pushed at it with all his might. He didn't want to send it spinning off into space, just alter it to a trajectory that would have it skimming across the planet's atmosphere. He could hear Teer as a dull, background noise as he felt the meteor shift; the movement exhausting him as much as bench-pressing twice his own body weight.
He hadn't expected that.
Still, the meteor moved, and it was no longer heading straight towards the planet. He watched with satisfaction as it skimmed like a stone across water over the planet's atmosphere and continued along a harmless route through and out of the solar system.
When he turned to look at the planet he'd just saved from extinction, feeling unaccountably heavy from the exertion, he found Teer watching him with a certain sadness about her.
"I am sorry, John Sheppard. They will not be pleased." She said softly, and in between one moment and the next, she had vanished.
Where once had been an endless expanse of space and colour, now there was none. John looked around slowly, trying to work out what had happened. An awful feeling swept over him as he realised what had happened.
He'd been shifted. Moved. Shunted out of the way. Habeas Corpus apparently did not apply in the afterlife. His only thoughts were of the meteor and if he hadn't moved it, he could be on his way back to Rodney right now.
Instead, it was this place, and he had no idea if he would ever get out.
Here where the walls were white. The floors were white. The ceiling: white.
Rodney, Teyla and Ronon rushed into the control room as the gate flashed white and shut down.
"What've we got?" Rodney asked, glancing at the gate before pulling up a chair at the nearest free console. "There's nothing wrong." He said, flicking through the readouts on screen. "Why are we even here?"
"Dr. McKay, I think you're going to want to see this," Chuck said without looking away from the group standing in the middle of the gateroom.
Rodney frowned at Chuck, glancing back at the screen as if some technical problem he'd neglected to mention would suddenly pop up. Chuck wouldn't call him unless there was a problem he could fix. Except, he'd called Ronon and Teyla, too.
Rodney stood up and walked towards the railing, and what he saw made his knees buckle. He stumbled forward and gripped the railing in both hands, needing something real to grasp on to because what he was seeing couldn't possibly be.
Standing in front of the gate in the middle of Lorne's team, Lorne's hand cupped to his elbow guiding him, was John. Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, USAF. The Military Commander of the Atlantis Expedition for nearly three years, was wearing peasant brown and beige, shoes tied to his feet with twine, and was staring around the complex, awed like a country hick on his first trip to the big city.
Rodney heard Teyla gasp beside him, Ronon made a sound that may have been startled, but Rodney was too caught up in hyperventilating to care.
John was back. He'd done it. He'd cheated ascension. He came back.
Teyla pried his fingers off the railing and tugged him towards the stairs. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the sight before him, but her joyous laugh rang in his ears as they hurried down the stairs and rushed towards Lorne and his team. John looked towards them as they came closer, face lighting up as they came to a stop.
"Hi," John said brightly, holding out his hand. "I'm John."
Rodney's knees buckled, Ronon's large hand grabbing his shoulder and keeping him upright. He'd known. He'd read the reports and knew that this had happened to Jackson, that it took a while for the memories and the personality to come back, that he wouldn't be John just yet.
"We know, John." Teyla said, smiling brightly with tears dotting the corners of her eyes as she raised her hands to his head and pulled their foreheads together. "I am Teyla. It is good to have you home once more."
If it hadn't felt like the world was falling out from under him, Rodney would have laughed at the way John mimicked her stance and placed his own hands on either side of her head and clasped her tightly. When she released him, John looked a little bemused and overwhelmed.
Ronon stepped forward and John raised his hands, a little hesitantly, but was startled into a yelp when Ronon brushed his hands aside and lifted him into a big, warm hug, jostling him from side to side. John was laughing when Ronon set him down, free and easy and not at all like the man Rodney knew.
Teyla nudged him and Rodney shuffled forward, awkward in the aftermath of the displays of affection. John was looking at him curiously, and Rodney would have given anything to have been as open; he was always much more comfortable displaying the negatives rather than the positives — showing the positives meant he had something to lose.
John was looking at him curiously, seeming to be unsure which was the appropriate greeting for the newcomer: the forehead press or the enormous hug.
Rodney made the decision for him and held out his right hand. John mirrored him and it took a few moments for them to get the correct hands in the right places, and then it was over. The briefest, impersonal touch, palm to palm and then Rodney was stepping away.
"Rodney. Dr. Rodney McKay. I- That is to say, We-" Rodney stuttered over his introduction as he gestured to the three of them with a wave of his hand. "-were, are your team."
"My team?" John frowned. "You mean like Mister Lorne's team?"
John was just so earnest, and Rodney was too overwhelmed by the confirmation that this was not even close to their John Sheppard, that he didn't even think to correct the title.
"I think it's about time we took the Colonel to the infirmary." Lorne said meaningfully, gesturing to the people who were beginning to crowd the balconies and doorways overlooking the gateroom.
"Who's the Colonel? Is he sick?" John asked, looking around as if trying to see this mysterious Colonel.
"You're the Colonel, sir. Follow us and we'll get you checked out, okay?" Lorne motioned for John to follow him as he lead the way out of the room, cutting a swathe through the gapers at the nearest exit. Ronon and Teyla flanked John and escorted him out, leaving Rodney to follow, numb, in their wake.
The journey to the infirmary was made that much longer by the constant stream of people welcoming him back and John stopping to try and work out which way was the best to greet them. He treated everyone the same, but like a goldfish in a bowl, John didn't seem to remember anyone unless they stayed in his way.
By the time they reached the infirmary, John knew Lorne, and Teyla, and Ronon, but struggled to remember Rodney's name.
Some part of Rodney wondered if it would have been better if John hadn't come back at all.
"Now, what seems to be the proble- Good Lord! John, you're back!" Carson bustled in, seeming to expect a routine post-mission evaluation, and nearly knocking over a tray of supplies in his haste to wrap his arms around John and squeeze him.
John, for his part, looked uncomfortable.
"It's good to see you, lad." Carson said over John's shoulder, showing no signs of letting go any time soon.
John patted Carson carefully on the back.
Some things never changed.
"It's... good to see you, too... Who are you?" John asked as he craned his neck to get a better look.
At that, Carson pulled back and looked carefully into John's eyes before speaking as if he wasn't even there. "Amnesia? I'd read the reports and heard it could happen, but this is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating." Cupping John's jaw, Carson turned his head from side to side checking for, Rodney wasn't sure what, actually. Carson looked to be about a scratch behind the ear and a smack to the rump away from checking his teeth and declaring John Best In Show.
Rodney snorted derisively at the mental image.
John frowned at him.
"Carson? I just got the call." Elizabeth weaved through the crowd that had followed John into the infirmary, and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. "John?" Elizabeth looked to Carson. "Is it really him?"
"Yes, Carson," John said in a curious tone, a twitch at the corners of his wide, guileless eyes the only thing that gave away any ill feeling. "Is it really him?" If he sounded a little bitter, Rodney didn't blame him.
"I... I'll need to run some tests. Compare the results with the last normal scans taken before, he, uh." Carson cleared his throat. "It's going to take some time. I'll let you know when I do. Until then, everybody out." He shooed everyone out and led John to one of the beds, closing the curtain surrounding it.
The milling crowd, sensing that the show was over, slowly began to disperse. Elizabeth nodded tersely to people as they passed, smile brittle on her face.
"When did this happen, and why wasn't I informed sooner?" Elizabeth demanded, shuffling off to a corner with Rodney, Teyla and Ronon.
"We were paged to the gateroom, and he was just there. I don't think any of us had the presence of mind to pause a moment and think 'Gee, Why isn't Elizabeth here to witness the return of our presumed dead military commander?" Rodney snapped louder than intended and with unnecessary venom. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. Everyone in the infirmary turned to look at him in shock, but Rodney held his ground.
"Rodney!" Teyla chastised. "We do not know why you were not informed, Elizabeth. We arrived, found John with Major Lorne, and then we came here. We assumed you had been told. I believe there is something much more important that we need to focus on: John has returned, and he does not know who we are."
Elizabeth continued to frown, but nodded firmly and set her shoulders.
"You're right, Teyla," She conceded, inclining her head gracefully, if not a little stiffly. "We shouldn't make any firm decisions until we have Carson's report back. Until then, I suggest we wait and try to think of ways to remind John of who he is."
Rodney rolled his eyes and stomped off to sit on one of the empty beds near the curtained off section of the room, listening to Carson's low burr, and the soft, scratchy responses from John. After a while, Teyla came to sit beside him. Ronon followed not long after that, standing at the end of the bed and staring intently at the curtain.
Elizabeth, forever removed from the people she knew, whether by choice or otherwise, elected to sit at a desk by the wall, chin perched on her hand as she stared off into space.
Rodney had waited so long for this moment to arrive, to finally have John back in the city, that he was having a hard time processing the actual occurrence. He found it worrying. He, of all people, should have been the first person to run around shouting I knew it! to every person he found, yet, it didn't feel that way.
The man behind the curtain—the great and powerful Oz whose magic runs the Sapphire City, Rodney's mind mocked—was just as unreachable as before. The John Sheppard they had was not the John Sheppard they knew.
And that thought was, simply put, unfathomable.
Half an hour later, after watching Carson bustle in and out, shushing their questions with a wave of his hand each time, Carson pulled back the curtain and called them forth.
"Physically, he is definitely John Sheppard. All the scans match those prior to his encounter with the ascension machine," Carson stated, allowing them a moment's pause as they breathed a collective sigh of relief. John simply sat on the bed and watched with vague curiosity.
"Now, his brain scans also match those from before, so we can be sure that there's no serious damage. But, if you'll just look at this," Carson turned and pointed at one of the monitors with a recent brain scan displayed. "The equipment the SGC has on earth is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Ancient scanners we've found, so you can see here tiny blockages in the neural pathways, especially around the pre-frontal lobe, hippocampus and amygdala."
"Great, so we've essentially got a fearless goldfish." Rodney sneered at Carson, trying not to let his worry show clearly on his face. If the confused, displeased frown he got from Sheppard was anything to go by, he was afraid he'd succeeded.
"Now, now. Pipe down, Rodney," Carson said disapprovingly. "These blockages are only temporary. They'll slowly break down over time and his memory will most likely come back in dribs and drabs. Though, how long this process will take, I've no idea. Until then, I think it's best if we continue on, and let it happen naturally."
"Is there any way we can speed up the process, Carson?" Elizabeth asked before Rodney even had a chance to open his mouth. He looked at her closely and realised how much of a toll the past few months must have had on her; of course she'd want her military commander back as soon as possible.
"Nothing that won't cause irreparable damage to his brain." Carson shook his head sadly. John looked horrified at the prospect and began to make choked protests, but Carson patted him on the shoulder and reassured him. "Don't worry, lad. It won't come to that. It won't hurt to show him around his old haunts, and reacquaint him with activities he used participate in—Teyla, Ronon go easy—but I believe the process is something that has to happen in its own time, at its own pace."
"Right, well. Keep me appraised, Carson." She looked at Rodney, Teyla and Ronon. "If he's not with any of you, he's to be provided with an escort. And I want someone posted outside his door if he's in there alone." Elizabeth said before turning to John and placing a hand on his shoulder. "It is good to have you back, we're just taking a few precautions to make sure nobody gets hurt accidentally." Her voice rang with sincerity, but she ducked her head and left before John could respond.
"Right, well. You're not sick, so there's no need for you to stay here. I'm releasing you to Rodney's capable mind. I'm sure the four of you will wish to get reacquainted." Carson grasped his shoulder and jostled him slightly. "It's really, truly great to have you home again, John."
"Thank you, uh, Carson." John said, giving him a genuine smile before turning back to his team.
Rodney watched as John looked from Ronon, to Teyla, before finally laying eyes on Rodney himself. If Rodney hadn't been paying extremely close attention to every tiny twitch and fidget from John, he might have missed the way John's eyes shuttered as the fell on him before he quickly looked away and began to talk to Teyla.
Rodney was well aware that his first impressions sucked, and it looked like he'd made yet another bad one. To possibly the most important person in his life.
Until John's memory came back, Rodney could only imagine the sheer amount of suck the next few weeks or months were going to be. He had no idea why John had liked him in the first place.
How was he supposed to make John get past his abrasive personality now?
John pushed himself off the bed and followed Teyla and Ronon out of the infirmary without giving Rodney a second look.
Oh, yeah. He was screwed.
Sitting at their usual table in the middle of the mess, Rodney felt at once a swell of pride that John had defied the odds and come back, and a stab of nausea at the fact that every time he opened his mouth John would either shrug and continue eating, or frown at him until he trailed off weakly. Now, John was watching with a look of horrified awe on his face as Ronon ate, hand over hand and a mushy trail of I-Hope-That's-Pea down his goatee.
"He always eats like this," Rodney pointed out. "Ever since we found the big lug. We were never able to convince him of the wonders of cutlery."
Dragging his eyes away from Ronon for a second, John threw Rodney a thinly veiled look of disgust, as though he were trying and failing to hold back his opinion and be polite, and grunted.
Well, Rodney thought, grunting is an improvement.
"It has been... interesting," Teyla interjected, obviously sensing the discomfort radiating between John and Rodney. "But, we have all learned to deal with each others' idiosyncrasies."
"Yeah," Ronon said, gesturing with a chicken leg. "Teyla snores."
The look Teyla turned on Ronon was murderous.
"That is completely false." She told John, drawing her calm dignity around her like armour. "Ronon suffers from sleep flatulence." Taking a bite of her sandwich, she raised an eyebrow at Ronon.
Ronon, for his part, looked thoughtful for a moment, before shrugging and conceding her point. Teyla basked in her triumph.
"Wait, you two are..." John waved his fork between the two of them, endlessly articulate in his amnesiac silence. Rodney closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief; his John was still in there.
"No, we are- No," Teyla stated definitively, not even looking to see Ronon's reaction. "I am- There is another. Ronon and I share accommodations while we are offworld on missions. I am sure Rodney has many such tales to tell of you." She made the remark with a twinkle in her eye, but the glance she darted to Rodney told him that she, too, felt John's reluctance to engage with Rodney on any level.
"John-" Rodney began, drawing out the syllable like a lifeline. John what? John hogged the covers? John had a tendency towards snuggling in his sleep? John sometime had nightmares so bad that he had to be physically held down until he woke up of his own accord, gasping for breath and staring at Rodney without recognition? "-is usually asleep after me and awake before me." He trailed off lamely, looking down at his tray and pushing his food around with his fork.
"Insightful," John said dismissively, before turning back to Teyla and Ronon. "So, missions?"
Then they were off again, relating stories—well, Teyla related the stories, Ronon pointed out when he blew stuff up—of their missions to John as he soaked up every drop of information about his former self. Rodney occasionally tried to interject, but eventually gave it up as a lost cause when he saw a complete lack of warmth, or even recognition of his status as a person, each time John looked at him.
It was like being back at high school again: less than human because of his abrasive personality and facility for intellectual rather than physical development. He'd never realised what it was like to be outside John's circle. It seemed like he had always been in it, accepted and acknowledged, even before they took the risk of changing the parameters of their relationship. Now he knew it was a place he sincerely did not want to be.
He was about to push his tray away and declare that he had some very important, couldn't-possibly-wait-any-longer work to do in the labs, when Teyla looked at her watch and gasped.
"I am sorry, John. Ronon and I are scheduled for a mission to Pyteria with AG-2 that cannot be rescheduled; they are new trading partners and adamant about maintaining relations with the same people each time." Teyla stood and turned to John, leaning down to press her forehead to his. "It is good to have you home," she said, and though she'd repeated the sentiment often, each time it felt like a revelation.
Ronon stood, too, and picked up his and Teyla's trays. "See you when we get back," he rumbled, and it sounded almost like a threat; like there would be hell to pay if John wasn't there when they returned.
"What am I supposed to do now?" John asked, looking bewildered and lost that his guides in this new world were abandoning him.
"Rodney will be with you," Teyla said as she walked around the table and placed her hands on Rodney's shoulders, squeezing them reassuringly. "He, of all of us, is perhaps the best equipped to introduce you to yourself."
Rodney looked up at her gratefully, and she smiled sympathetically down. None of them were really equipped for a John who didn't relate to Rodney. They were all put more than a little off balance by it, though Teyla and Ronon hid it better.
John looked disbelievingly between Teyla and Rodney before huffing a sigh and nodding.
"Okay, fine. See you when you get back." John waved as they left before sprawling in the chair, arm hooked over the backrest, looking like a regular James Dean, and staring around the room like he didn't have a care in the world.
"So," Rodney said awkwardly once they were, technically, alone.
"So," John agreed, clearly not wanting to be having this conversation—or any—with Rodney.
"Are you finished eating? I could, uh, well, we could go have a look at your room. Get to know yourself, as it were." Rodney offered, hoping something would jog John's memory a little faster.
"Sure," John stood abruptly from his chair and picked up his tray. "Where does this go?"
"Oh, just give me a second, I'll-"
"Just point me in the right direction. I'm not a child," John insisted, pushing his chair under the table with a screech of its legs.
"Um. Just over there, yeah. With the others." Rodney pointed and finished clearing up his mess, taking his time before following John over.
People were looking at John a little strangely, throwing confused looks in Rodney's direction, but that didn't stop them from walking up and welcoming John back warmly. Rodney held his chin high as he walked over, ignoring the confused and sympathetic looks aimed in his direction.
John was talking to Esposito amicably when Rodney bussed his tray, and some little part of Rodney had an attack of hysteria at the mere thought of John exchanging more than two civil words with the woman of whom he was—when he was in his right mind—irrationally jealous.
"Well then," Rodney said, clapping his hands together as he stepped towards them with a patently false smile slapped on his face. "Esposito, weren't you working on the level five power relays?" Rodney asked, remembering the interminable meeting where he'd had to go over the schematics with her to make sure she wouldn't blow them all sky high.
"Yes, I was just-" she began, but Rodney cut her off."
"You were just leaving the job half done to come have a nice, little chat with the prodigal son? Hrm? We went over this Five. Times. I'll repeat it in small words so you'll remember: you Do Not leave until Your Job is Finished. You will go back Now so that we Won't Die. Do you understand?" Rodney bit out angrily, completely baffled by the way the younger scientists would just trot off for a break in the middle of something incredibly delicate and leave everyone's lives hanging in the balance.
"Y-yes, sir. Dr. McKay." She stuttered before scurrying away.
"And when you're done, you're in lab 36 sorting crystals until you can remember not to be an idiot!" Rodney yelled after her before turning back to John.
John who was quietly seething.
"I don't know who you think you are, but there is no excuse for being so completely inhuman," John bit out through clenched teeth.
"What? Yes, yes, I'm an asshole. You get used to it," Rodney quipped, forgetting for a second that John didn't know him. Seeing the flash of John's eyes, Rodney inhaled and barrelled on. "See all the people around here? Not dead. And you know why? Because I'm the asshole who makes sure they don't fuck up and kill us all."
"There are better ways," John said, crossing his arms over his chest, clearly unimpressed and projecting some sort of bizarre adopted cultural superiority.
People started to gather surreptitiously nearby to eavesdrop. Corporal Everson was examining a leaf on a nearby potted plant with great interest, displaying a level of subtlety previously only seen in a neurosurgeon holding a copy of The Human Brain For Dummies in one hand, and a chainsaw in the other.
"When you've been here more than five minutes, then you can judge. Until then, you don't know these people. You don't know what damage they can do if they're left alone, or what greatness they could achieve if they're pushed. You do not know me. You do not know how many times I've saved everyone's lives at the last second, and you do not know what I've sacrificed to get here. So, no. You don't get to judge me and you don't get to judge anyone else here based on some bizarre notion of what's polite." Rodney inhaled deeply, feeling his face flushed from the exertion. He took grim satisfaction in the shell-shocked expression on John's face before spinning to address the room at large.
"And all of you so subtly not listening: Yes, you heard me. It's the only time you will ever hear it, so clean your acts up and I won't have to yell at you anymore. Much." He turned back and glared at Sheppard. "Now that we've given everyone enough gossip fodder to carry them into the next millennia, I'm going to show you your room. Follow me, Mister Sheppard." Rodney's hands were shaking as he walked past Sheppard and out of the room, stopping outside to catch his breath and wait for him to catch up. Tapping his comm. he put in a request with Lorne for a military presence to be waiting outside Sheppard's room.
Not thirty seconds later, Sheppard came out, head bowed. He stood beside Rodney and waited, not making eye-contact and not saying a word. Rodney took this as confirmation that Sheppard was ready to go and walked to the transporter.
"This is a transporter," Rodney said as Sheppard came to stand beside him. "This is the sensor, swipe your hand over it and it opens the doors. This is the site map-" Rodney stepped into the transporter and activated the screen. "This menu at the side changes the level, then you press your destination on the map. Your quarters are on level four of the central tower, which is here-" Rodney pressed the destination and watched as the doors slid closed, "-and here we are." Rodney finished as the doors slid open again.
John stumbled out, wide eyed with awe, running his hands over the walls and looking back into the transporter as if it were some sort of magic trick and he just had to find the trap door to figure it out. He had an amazed smile on his face, a look of wonder and awe Rodney remembered from when they'd first walked through the gate and he'd explored the city with him. The wonder and awe they'd both experienced, the wealth of discovery at their fingertips just waiting to be uncovered.
Rodney smiled at the memory; that had been theirs. That had been the time they'd started bonding, that they'd become friends. This city and its wonders were their foundation, the solid base that brought them together and kept them there.
John looked at him and that wonder was still there, as bright as ever. There was a smile on his face that made him look ten years younger. It was there. They were back. They were smiling at each other and their whole world was full of possibility.
Then John shut down.
It was like he remembered where he was and who he was smiling at only not. He was disremembering, which wasn't even really a word but there was nothing that really covered remembering the erroneous assumptions made during the three hours since you returned home in an amnesiac state.
"My room?" Sheppard asked in a cool voice.
He'd missed it. His chance was gone.
"This way," he said wearily, trudging down the hall on autopilot, his feet knowing which way to go even without his brain telling them where. "It's the seventh door on the left, first after the planter. Right where Corporal McNeil is standing." He stopped outside John's door, shunted the young marine out of the way, and swiped his hand. "The sensor is keyed to your genetic code, and, uh, mine, but I won't be using it. There's also a medical emergency override that Carson, as CMO, and certain senior medical staff can activate if necessary. All your things are here, pretty much as you left them. If you need anything, your headset is on your bedside table; just slip it over your ear and press the button to activate it. Say 'Sheppard to McKay' and I'll come running, as they say. Well, I'll leave you to it." Rodney turned and hurried down the hall, berating himself silently for being such an asshole that his amnesiac boyf- best friend called him on it and possibly ruined their one chance at being actual friends again.
"Uh, Dr. McKay?"
Rodney stopped just outside the transporter and looked back. John was standing in the middle of the hall looking grim and determined. Rodney hated that face. That face usually came before explosions and near death experiences.
He'd never been so happy to see it before in his life.
"Yes?" He asked, trying not to let the thrill of progress overwhelm him.
"Thank You." John said.
Thank You, Rodney thought. A definite improvement on grunting and the primitive culture equivalent of 'You're an asshole'.
"You're welcome... John." Rodney responded sincerely. "You'd do the same for me if I had amnesia." He smiled sadly and watched as John nodded thoughtfully and stepped into his room.
Baby steps. He could handle that. Baby steps.
John stood in stillness as the door slid closed behind him, staring at the odds and ends of the life of a man he didn't know. There was a picture beside the bed, a strange flat board with no discernible use and an oddly shaped stick that was fat and hollow at one end could have been a weapon if it didn't look so fragile. Above the bed was a poster of an angry looking man pointing down at the covers; probably a representation of his god, a vengeful one by the look of it.
John didn't know the man who lived here.
He closed his eyes and breathed.
He was on the planet, Ilyusi, again, before the armed men came to take him away. He was in the middle of the village square, talking to one of the elders as children played in the dust, chasing the asqwami into their pens. The people were kind and had taken him in, protected him from the elements and taught him their values: be kind and cherish what you have.
They called him Yoahn: emptiness.
Then the men had come—Mister Lorne and his friends—and they had known him: John. The elders had pronounced it a joyous occasion that one so lost could be found again. Though they had their suspicions, they had insisted he go back that he might learn of himself, he would always be welcomed back should he not want to stay.
So he had come, guileless and trusting.
The people he had met had all welcomed him with shock in their eyes and joy in their hearts, all except for Dr. McKay.
John thought he might have taken to this place more readily if it hadn't been for Dr. McKay. The man had been arrogant, rude and egotistical: three qualities anathema to the Iyusians. Rodney threw John's balance and made him angry in a way that confused and overwhelmed him. He just wanted to hit something and it was only through dedicated restraint that he hadn't already.
Yet, Rodney seemed to care about the people he berated, and, in a strange way, about John. He seemed to be sure that the man that John was would have helped if their roles had been reversed.
John didn't know that man.
Maybe it was time he got to.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked around once more. The room seemed just as alien and bizarre as before. He took a tentative step forward, half expecting something to jump out at him; some dark secret that he could never un-know.
He took another cautious step, eying the shadows warily and wishing it was brighter. The lights suddenly rose and John jumped, startled. Stumbling and falling, he knocked over the strange hollow stick, sending it flying to hit the long flat board with a discordant twang that filled the room with noise. He scrambled backwards until he hit the wall with a thud, pressing his hands against his ears and clenching his eyes shut.
He wanted to go home.
There was a strange melodic sound that he heard even over his hands pressed tight to his ears and the thrum of blood in his head. He didn't want to hear it, didn't want to be here. He wanted all the noises to stop and to be back on Ilyusi and not trying to be the person everyone here thought him to be.
The sound came again. He opened his eyes and stood up to look around the room, trying to work out what it could be so he could make it stop; there was nothing on the bed, or its side table, nothing on the work table on the far side of the room, and the side door to the bathing area was all but bare. Standing in the centre of the room, he turned a full circle before glaring at the ceiling and shouting an irritated What?!
These people were having a bad effect on him.
The door slid open by some unseen force revealing the tall, thin—possibly undernourished—woman from the infirmary. The one who had spoken as though he weren't there, and demanded explanations without first offering greeting.
John, stunned, looked at the door and then looked at her.
"Yes?" he asked, reining his emotions under control so he could treat her with the respect with which he would wish to be treated.
"Hello, John," she greeted with a pleasant, though wary, smile on her face. Her eyes told a different story; familiar, yet calculating. "I just came by to see how you were settling in. Rodney told me he'd left you here." A slight pursing of her lips told him she wasn't pleased by that turn of events.
"Dr. McKay and I don't get along," he stated grimly, wondering what it was about these people that they got his defences up so easily. He never would have been so edgy on Ilyusi.
She made a choked sound of disbelief, boggling at him and shattering her calm veneer.
"I don't see what there is to be shocked about. Dr. McKay is-"
"A good man," she cut him off with a glare. "And your best friend."
John narrowed his eyes; why were these people so quick to defend such a horrible person? They were either telling the truth—unlikely—or there was some sort of elaborate city-wide ruse designed to... John didn't know what, but it couldn't be good.
"He may be this man's best friend," he started, waving a hand to indicate the room at large, "but I don't know him, and I don't like him."
"Have you even given him a chance?" she asked, and he realised he couldn't even remember her name.
"Doctor Weir. Elizabeth. You called me Elizabeth. We were friends, too, John." Her eyes were sad and there was no manipulation in them at all. John was confused.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Weir. We're not friends. I don't belong here. I belong back on Ilyusi with people whose values I can discern and support." He stood tall as he told her. He wanted to go back, they could send him back. The elders would understand that this was a man he didn't want to find.
Like attracts like; he was not the same as Dr. McKay.
"Be kind and cherish what you have," he told her proudly. "Here... you don't even acknowledge, let alone cherish anything. You expect things to be the way they always have and not even admit the change. I'm not like you."
"No, John. You're not," she said it fiercely, like it was something she held dear and she needed to defend it. "Nobody here takes what we have for granted. Every second is precious to us and it is a miracle to us that we have managed to survive this long. We may not express it the way you've seen the Ilyusi do, but we do it... We also don't close our minds to things because they don't immediately fit with our world view."
John was stunned by the passion with which she spoke, the way her eyes lit up when she mentioned the Lanteans as a group. She knew these people and she was proud of them.
She reached out and clasped his hand in hers.
"Give us a chance before you write us off completely. We may surprise you... Especially Rodney." Her hand was shaking slightly where she touched him. "It has been a long, difficult path for him since you've been gone. We almost lost him, more than once. Teyla believes he was going to attempt to ascend to follow you and bring you home. Does that sound like the man you met today? That kind of devotion is rare, and you, Colonel John Sheppard, inspired it in one of the most intelligent and respected men in the world. Think about that, John."
"I'm not making any promises," John said, trying to cover up the shame he felt at having been caught being bigoted. He never would have done that on Ilyusi. This place had him confused and off centre. Who was he? The man that made a living herding asqwami on Ilyusi and couldn't remember anything beyond a month ago? Or Colonel John Sheppard, the man that apparently inspired devotion in the most arrogant and egotistical of men?
"I'm not asking you to. Just... give us a chance. Give Rodney a chance." She let her hand drop and backed towards the door, not waiting for an answer.
"I'll try," he said quietly, looking at the floor.
"Thank you." She swiped her hand at the strange set of lights beside the door and stepped through as it slid silently open, nodding to the marine on the other side. Then she was gone.
As the door slid closed again, John looked up and stared around the room at all that currently remained of the man these people knew.
"Who are you, John Sheppard?" He asked softly.
The room didn't respond.
"That's not John Sheppard," Rodney stated as he paced back and forth on the small balcony. Teyla had tracked him down on her return from Pyteria to give him a stern talking to for leaving John alone in the city.
"Perhaps not on the surface, but he is in there, and we are the ones charged with helping him find his way. You cannot just abandon him." Teyla's voice was steady and firm, displeasure marring her forehead with a frown.
"He hates me, Teyla. He thinks I'm an asshole. How am I supposed to help him 'find himself' if he doesn't even want to speak to me?" Rodney turned and looked out to sea, gripping the railing with his hands. It felt like history was repeating itself; instead of John out here freaking out with Teyla talking him down, it was Rodney's privilege.
"It will not be easy, Rodney. Major Lorne has said that the Ilyusi value courteousness and respect above all else. This is all he has known as far back as he can remember. It will take time, and it will be hard." She stood beside him gazing out at endless ocean with a distant look in her eye. "You are right." She said softly, sadly. "He is not as he was; he is earnest, uncertain. It is heartening to have him back, yet I cannot help but feel that it will be a long time to come before John is truly home."
"It's stupid," Rodney said, resting his elbows on the rail and letting his head hang low. "I thought... I thought when he got back we'd go back to the way we were, talking and bickering and... stuff, even if he didn't know who he was. I thought we had some sort of, I don't know, connection? Some unconscious part of him would recognise me, and like me, and it wouldn't be a problem. I didn't even know I could be this wrong."
"I, too, imagined it would be that way." Teyla sighed and stood up, placing her hands on Rodney's shoulders to turn him to face her. "We will have our John back." She guided his head down to meet hers. "You will have your John back."
"Thank you, Teyla." He said softly, drawling back to look down at her determined face. "But I don't think I can be the man he needs me to be to help him."
"You do not need to change yourself to be who he thinks you should be, and our John would not respect you if you did." Teyla glared at him, as if the very thought of it offended her. He opened his mouth to respond that every member of the team had, at one point or another, suggested he change himself to better suit certain situations, but Teyla continued speaking. "Be yourself. He will see the man we have all grown to love and respect."
"And if he doesn't?" Rodney had the suspicion that everyone was currently harbouring the same fear; John's memory would never return.
"Ronon and I will take turns 'teaching' him to use the Bantos."
The response startled a laugh out of Rodney.
"You will be invited to watch."
Rodney smiled for what felt like the first time in forever. Even though it had only been a few short hours, the agony of knowing he was all but hated by John had made the afternoon feel interminable.
"On Pyteria, Ronon and I discussed holding a team night," Teyla said as she turned to walk towards the door, obviously deciding the conversation was over.
"Ronon discussed something?" Rodney asked, his mind balking at the idea of Ronon in a considered back-and-forth conversation.
"Well, I suggested that it would be beneficial for all of us and Ronon agreed. We will meet in the mess at seven o'clock." She swiped her hand over the sensor and turned in the doorway. "It will give us a chance to become reaccustomed to each other. Ronon has chosen Star Wars. Do not be late." With that, she turned and left, not leaving any room for argument.
Rodney slumped. He'd have to spend a minimum of four uncomfortable hours with not!John hoping like hell that Han Solo would be the thing that they could see eye to eye on.
Knowing his luck, the mere fact that Rodney enjoyed it would be enough to make John hate it.
He never thought the day John came back from ascending would be the worst of his life, but it was. All he wanted to do was to touch John, anywhere, everywhere, to reassure himself that everything was okay, that John was really there, but he hadn't managed much more than a sweaty palmed handshake. It was no wonder John didn't know what to make of him; all those warm greetings and then there was Rodney, stiff and awkward.
He'd wanted to hug him, god, how he wanted to. He wanted to wrap his arms around him and never let go.
Which was why he hadn't.
He couldn't imagine getting that touch and then having to step away and pretend they were just friends. He knew if he'd let himself, he would have held on tight, pressed his face into John's neck and stayed there until Lorne or someone else had had to pry him off. He'd done it to protect the both of them, and it had backfired spectacularly.
Rodney shook himself, trying to stop himself from letting the pain overtake him. It was like a constant throb in his chest, a John-shaped ache in his arms. He'd been down that path before, he couldn't do it again, not with John so close.
He squared his shoulders and raised his chin as if donning armour for battle. He'd go to the lab, work to keep his mind off of everything, then he'd go to dinner and watch a movie. With John.
Tomorrow, he'd deal with when it got there.
And the day after.
And the day after.
Until the rest of John was back and they had the complete set.
It wasn't much of a plan, as far as plans go, but it would have to do.
At fifteen minutes past seven, Dr. McKay rushed into the mess hall and made a beeline for the table, practically bouncing with excitement.
"Sorry, I'm late," he rushed out, breathing heavily as he stood at the head of the table. "I was working on the power distribution with Zelenka and we found a way to boost the output by ten percent! Ten percent! You should have seen it, it was amazing! We were able to get some secondary systems to come online and one of them was an adjunct to the city's internal sensors which gives biometric readings on every living thing in the city, which is a gross violation of privacy in some cases, but just think of what this could mean in an emergency. It's incredible. Incredible!"
"What did he just say?" John asked, staring at him like he'd grown a second head.
"We do not know, just smile and nod and offer congratulations," Teyla said, doing just that. "It has been too long since we have seen you this optimistic and excited, Rodney. It is a good look for you."
Dr. McKay flushed with pleasure, chin jerking up smugly.
"Everyone has a bad run, once in a while. It's obvious that my genius is now back at full capacity and, uh, raring to go, as they say." Dr. McKay bounced on the balls of his feet. "Oh, food! I'll be right back." He dropped his tablet on the table beside Ronon and trotted off to grab himself a tray, still brimming over with good humour.
John frowned in confusion as he watched Dr. McKay go. The man just refused to make any sort of sense; first he's a complete, standoffish asshole, and then he's like an excited child with a new toy. Sometimes it hurt just thinking about the contradictions.
Teyla was still beaming as she turned to John.
"Rodney does not always react well to other people, but that does not mean he is not worthy of attention," Teyla said in a soft, confidential tone. "The work he has done in the few hours of this afternoon will likely save many lives in the years to come."
"I don't understand him." John shrugged, answering honestly. Dr. Rodney McKay was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He had no idea where that phrase had come from, but it seemed fitting.
"Not many do," She smiled fondly at the man standing in front of the food berating a corpsman about some kind of fruit. "You are one of the lucky few who is privileged enough to know him truly. Or, you will be if you keep your mind free of your misconceptions." There was a challenge in her tone that John shied away from, remnants of his earlier guilt rising up to taunt him once more.
"So, what you're saying is that he's really a nice guy?" John asked.
Teyla's laugh rang out through the mess like a titter of melodious music, causing a few of the people nearby to look at her curiously. Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Dr. McKay stop mid-rant and look over at them, a strangely wistful look on his face.
Of course: Dr. McKay was in love with Teyla, but she was a far too strong, powerful and beautiful woman for someone like him. The very thought made something inside him clench, which was... curious.
"I do not believe that any person would describe Rodney as 'nice'." Teyla said through what could only be described as a giggle. "He is a generous and devoted man, but he is not what one would call 'nice'. He is..." She trailed off and looked into space as if searching for the right words. "He is like a wild animal; intelligent and cunning, he does not trust easily. But, once you prove yourself to him, he will follow you to the ends of all worlds."
John was having a difficult time piecing together a complete image of Dr. McKay. Rodney. His moods were mercurial, and he was loud, brash and arrogant, yet everyone he had spoken to gave the same response: Rodney McKay was a good man. He just couldn't fathom it.
"Huh," John answered intelligently, returning to his food as Rodney placed his tray on the table and sat down.
"So, Star Wars," Dr. McKay—Rodney—said with a tentative smile. "You're going to love it. It was, quite literally, my first love. I had to fall in love with an actual person to make me realise what it was I felt for those movies." He began to dig into his food with a secret smile on his face.
John took a deep breath, looked surreptitiously at Ronon and Teyla, and decided to give the man a chance.
"Was she nice?" He asked. So far, he knew that Teyla had been raised in a large extended family comprised of all the village's children taken care of by all the people not capable of hunting or farming, and that Ronon had taken music lessons from childhood until his nineteenth year before his duties as a soldier and the war against the Wraith had made him abandon the teachings, but he knew nothing of Dr. McKay.
"What? Oh, yes. She was nice." Dr. McKay's usually expressive face shut down and he devoured his food with an intensity John had never seen before.
John didn't know what he had said, but he had obviously messed up badly. He looked over at Teyla and Ronon, but they too were focussed intently on their meals. John narrowed his eyes, and followed their example, their table spending the rest of the time in silence.
John was getting suspicious. More so. On top of all the defence of Dr. McKay, there was something everyone wasn't talking about. Was it something that had to do with him?
He thought, as he ate, but the only conclusions he could come to were strange and completely ridiculous, but all the evidence pointed that way: Dr. McKay, Teyla and himself were in a bizarre love triangle. It was the only explanation that fit: the wistful looks Rodney made in his and Teyla's direction, the way his gut clenched when he thought of Dr. McKay and Teyla together, the unnamed other person Teyla said she was seeing. Yet, she hadn't given any indication that she had any secret longings for his touch, or been anything but merely friendly in his presence. There was the forehead thing, which had been kind of intense, and seemed like the kind of thing only lovers would do, but... something didn't fit. He was missing something. Something big.
The clatter of trays being piled on top of each other pulled him out of his considerations and he looked up to see Ronon standing with his hand out for Johns. He looked down and realised that he'd finished everything and was just drawing meaningless designs in the leftover sauce. He passed the tray over without comment and sat staring at the table, occasionally darting a glance at Teyla or Dr. McKay he waited for whatever was to come.
Dr. McKay pushed his chair out and stood, followed shortly by Teyla. John looked up, startled, and followed suit, shoving his hands in his pockets as he followed the other three out of the mess and into the corridors.
He ended up walking between Teyla and Dr. McKay, Ronon striding out ahead. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to test his theory.
He drifted closer to Teyla until their shoulders were brushing with every step. She smiled slightly, and widened the distance between them, even though it meant she was walking nearly against the wall. On his other side, Dr. McKay hunched in further on himself and refused to look up, even to navigate around the outcroppings that appeared every few metres.
They arrived at Ronon's room, which was apparently a new location for what they'd been referring to as 'team night', and shuffled in through the door. The bed was positioned in the middle of the room, and along the wall on the far side was a couch with a large pile of cushions in front of it. There was a display, larger than the ones John had seen in the infirmary, facing towards the couch.
Ronon had just finished putting the DVD in the player as the three of them shuffled in, grabbing a remote device he threw himself onto the pile of pillows and sprawled out, limbs going this way and that as he relaxed. He waved a hand at the couch and waited.
"Sit, John." Teyla directed and gave John a light push towards the couch. He stumbled slightly as he clambered over Ronon to fall on the seat, awkwardly turning himself so he wasn't face down with his butt in the air.
Blushing when Teyla let out a peal of laughter and Ronon snorted inelegantly, he smoothed his hands over his knees and tried not to feel too embarrassed. He glanced at Dr. McKay, who had a small, barely contained smile on his face, but it disappeared when he noticed John watching.
He returned his attention to Teyla, waiting for her to come sit beside him so he could figure out what was so great about staring at a square for a couple of hours, but was surprised when she settled herself cross-legged on the cushions beside Ronon.
That just left Dr. McKay.
Ronon thwapped him to get him moving and Dr. McKay shuffled around the mass of cushions to perch himself on the arm of the couch. Both Teyla and Ronon glared at him, but he feigned ignorance until Ronon gave his leg a hard yank, sending him falling down onto the couch. His shoulder bumped into John's, but he quickly scrambled to grab hold of the arm, gripping it tight so he wouldn't slide towards John.
"Fine, fine. I'm sitting. Start the movie." Dr. McKay grumbled, hunching over as he all but climbed away from John.
With a roll of his eyes, Ronon pressed play on the remote and then there were words scrolling up the screen.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
Just over two hours later, the credits began to roll and John was dozing with his head lolling against the back of the couch, hand flopped down on the cushion. Rodney watched him, mouth slightly open and face lax with sleep. His hand rose involuntarily, moving to brush the hair off John's forehead. It was longer than it had been when he'd ascended, must have been the month on Ilyusi where all the men wore their hair long.
He snapped his hand closed, withdrawing it before he could touch. It was addictive, John, John's skin. One touch wouldn't be enough, and that could get complicated
He sighed and dropped his hand to the sofa, his finger scratching at the material near John's little finger. Just one little touch, John would never know. He looked up and found Teyla and Ronon watching him with sympathetic eyes. He snatched his hand away and stood up abruptly, jostling John in place and waking him up.
"Well, this was good. Good, yes. But I've got a lot of work to do in the morning, so I'll just be heading off. Ronon, thank you for couch, I'll see you around. Good night." Rodney babbled, hastening to get out the door.
"Rodney, wait!" Teyla called, rising from the floor in one graceful motion. "John and I will walk with you." She tapped John on the shoulder, waving her hands at him to make him stand up.
"Uh, thanks for the, um, picture story, Ronon. It was, um, interesting. Sorry for falling asleep." John said as he was tugged towards the doorway where Rodney was standing uncomfortably. Rodney narrowed his eyes as Teyla and Ronon exchanged a meaningful look and ushered John out of the room. They were up to something.
The door slid closed on the face of a smirking Ronon, and Teyla turned to them, smiling widely.
"I believe we shall walk John to his quarters. Come." She placed her hands on their shoulders and turned them to walk towards the transporter. "Did you enjoy the movie, John?" She asked, avid with interest.
"Um, the bits I saw of it were... remarkable. I didn't like that Luke person, though." John looked off thoughtfully, his hands digging into his pockets. "Is this what you do? Watch people in a box?"
"Some of the time. I do not fully understand its popularity myself, but it gives us time to simply be together. I find it comforting." She smiled serenely as they reached the transporter and pressed the destination. "There are other pastimes, too. Chess, for example. Rodney?"
"What? Oh, yes. It's considered one of the more intellectual games we play; an intense, strategy-driven battle of wits. John and I used to play before. He was quite good." He looked at John out of the corner of his eye somewhat unsurprised when John's eyebrows shot up as he turned to look back at Rodney. It was as if he didn't believe he and Rodney had ever actually spent any time together recreationally outside of team nights.
"Huh," John said, looking thoughtful once more.
Rodney really couldn't get a handle on this. Just being around John—a John who didn't just automatically know him—was confusing and off-putting. It was like going back to the town you'd grown up in, everything was different but it still had that feeling of familiarity that wouldn't budge; it just served to prove that you could never go home again.
They arrived at John's door and John swiped his hand over it, grinning a little to himself at the way it just slid open.
"Well, here we are. Goodnight, John." Rodney said, rubbing his hands together and backing away.
"Goodnight, Dr. McKay," John said offhand, staring at Teyla intently. "Uh, Teyla? Could I speak to you alone a moment?" He glanced at Rodney then, obviously wanting him to go away.
"Right, well," Rodney said, trying not to let the hurt show. "I'll just be off. Goodnight, Teyla." He nodded a little and continued down the hall and around the corner to the alcove embracing the door to his room. He carefully peeked around the corner to watch once he was sure John and Teyla's attention was elsewhere.
Sound carried well in the halls of Atlantis. The interior walls on all the rooms must have been soundproofed, as it wasn't possible to hear anything from within them, but sound carried down the halls well enough that it was possible to hear a conversation even when you weren't supposed to. People had taken to talking on the balconies to avoid gossip spreading. Rodney had been annoyed to find that out; information was power, after all.
"Listen, uh, Teyla," He heard John's voice as clearly as if he were beside him. "I did some thinking earlier and I think I've figured out why everyone's been acting strange around me."
There were reasons other than the fact that he'd just essentially come back from the dead?
"Acting strange how? We are readjusting to having you back, if that is what you mean." With her back to him, Rodney couldn't really see Teyla's face, but he guessed she was looking confused if the tone of her voice was anything to go by.
"I- Well, it's not really all of you, just you and Rodney. Not Ronon so much. And, I, well... I should just show you." Rodney watched with dawning horror as John raised his hand and cupped Teyla's face, eyes intent upon her as he leaned in and-
Rodney couldn't take it anymore, he stumbled back and swiped his hand over the door sensor, stumbling backwards into his room with his mind screaming Close. Close!
It was all wrong. They'd sent him back all wrong. They'd sent him back straight, and, damn, it had to be his punishment for the quick turnaround. He could come back, but only if he gave up what he really loved...
Unless it hadn't even been real in the first place.
Rodney scrambled to his bed and pulled the handwritten note from out under the pillow, scrabbling to unfold it so he could read it again.
What did that even mean? John hadn't mentioned anything specific—not that he really could, in his line of work, but still—and it was just two letters and a word. It might not have meant that John felt the same as Rodney, it could mean anything, Rodney had just projected what he thought he'd meant and, oh god, he'd read the situation all wrong. John had just been clinging to the first warm body he could find, someone he knew he could fuck no questions asked.
Of course, there had been questions asked, and it had all gotten much more complicated than Rodney had intended, but maybe John was just one of those guys who got stuck in relationships with no idea how to get out of them. Chaya. Teer. Who knew how many times it had happened before. He'd been married for crissake.
Rodney had been a fool.
Closing his eyes and inhaling deeply through his nose, Rodney scrunched the paper up into a ball with one hand and tossed it across the room without looking. He'd get over this. He'd soldier on—Ha!—and he would get past it. Let the new and improved heterosexual have Teyla if he wanted, Rodney could survive. He'd smart for a while over all the over-the-top grieving he'd done, but he was fairly sure nobody would talk about it, so it wouldn't be an issue.
He'd just avoid John until the pain went away. Simple.
It was a joke, and he knew it. But what else could he do?
The man he ... liked quite a lot ... didn't—couldn't—like him back. He'd get over it.
After he gave them a hell of a lot of distance.
The grounding stations needed a complete overhaul. He'd just be there.
For the next six months.
John meandered through the hallways in what he hoped was the right direction. In the weeks since he'd arrived here, he'd managed to get a grip on the general layout of the place, he could get from his room to the mess and the infirmary without any problems, but everywhere else just looked the same. He'd accidentally wandered into the control room once, and the labs another time—a place where he was expressly forbidden from entering, something to do with a gene that let him blow things up—but he'd managed to avoid getting completely lost.
He could recognise a lot of the people now, and knew most of them by name. He was remembering things in dribs and drabs, mostly words that he didn't understand—surfing, football, Gloster Meteor—and the occasional face that he hadn't seen around the city—a middle aged woman with a devilish smirk—but nothing very useful.
He was coming back from the west pier where he'd been running with Ronon, thankful that Elizabeth had called off the escort service a week earlier, and trying to figure out how to get from way out there to the infirmary without having to go all the way back to his room first. He wondered how he'd managed to become a pilot with such a lousy sense of direction.
That was one of the things that really got to him; everything feasibly concrete he knew about himself, he'd been told by other people. Teyla, Ronon, Elizabeth, Lorne; they'd all sat with him and given him bits and pieces of information about himself. He'd read the mission reports, his file, five pages of War and Peace, but he was still no closer to figuring it out.
The others had said that Dr. McKay—Rodney—would have different information, that they'd spent a majority of their time together before his ascension, but he had barely seen the man since his first day 'back'. John knew McKay had that little piece of information he needed, that one thing that would most likely bring everything else back, but no amount of chasing had gotten him any further than Can't talk, too much work to do before he saw McKay's back disappearing around a corner.
He knew McKay was avoiding him, he just didn't know why. He'd admit his first night had been a bit of a disaster, but he hadn't thought it was that bad. Teyla had forgiven him. Eventually.
He pressed his lips softly to hers, a tentative touch, almost questioning. His fingers brushed her hair from her cheek as he tried to angle her head into a better position, but she put her hands on his chest and pushed him back.
"What's wrong?" he asked in confusion. "This is right, isn't it? It's what you've all been avoiding talking about."
Teyla's eyebrows rose halfway up her forehead.
"John, I do not know where you got the idea that... that we were, whatever it is you think we are, but you have the wrong impression." Teyla kept a hand on his shoulder to keep him from coming closer. "I understand that you need something to ground you—this is a lot to take in—but you and I... we are friends. Nothing more." She smiled sympathetically at him and moved away.
"Oh," he said, looking down at his hands. "I, I thought... I guess I must have misunderstood. I'm sorry. This won't affect anything, will it? For him, I mean."
"For him. John Sheppard. The man you're all waiting to appear." John ran his hand through his hair in frustration.
"It may not seem that way to you, but you are here, John. And you are coming back to us, piece by piece. I promise you, all the confusion you are experiencing will be worth it." She sighed and turned away, lost in thought. "Your... misunderstanding... will not affect our relationship. You do not know, and I cannot be the one to tell you, but you are loved and you are happy." She raised a finger to silence his questions. "Officially, you and... the other person... have not told me or Ronon. Your relationship is... secret. Precious. It will be worth the wait."
"I'm supposed to just sit back and wait while someone who supposedly knows and loves me doesn't come and help me out? That's ridiculous. Who is it?" John demanded, getting increasingly frustrated at all the runaround he was getting. He'd only been here a few hours yet it felt like he was embroiled in a feud that had lasted centuries.
"Eventually, you will understand why I cannot, and why I did not." Teyla drew his forehead down to hers and inhaled. "Sleep well, John.
She turned away and tapped her comm. to call his security detail for the night. John stepped into his room and closed the door without responding.
John shook his head and pushed the thoughts from his head. No amount of wheedling and begging had gotten anyone to give him any details about his supposed relationship. Lorne and Elizabeth hadn't even known he was seeing someone. Carson, though, Carson knew something, and even if he couldn't tell him anything directly, John was sure he'd be able to read him well enough to get some clues.
Finally finding the infirmary, he wandered in and made his way to Carson's office, knocking on the door and waiting for an answer before stepping inside.
"John, it's good to see you. What can I do for you today?" Carson asked, setting aside the paperwork he'd been doing and focussing his full attention on John.
"Here's the thing," John said as he sat down in the chair opposite Carson, resting his elbows against the table and leaning forward. "Some people have told me that I was in a relationship, and some people didn't even know I was seeing anyone. But nobody can or will tell me who I was seeing. I was thinking that, as you were my doctor before this whole mess, you might be able to shed a little light on the subject." He tried not to look hopeful as he waited for a response. It was driving him crazy, not knowing. Every second person was a potential candidate, but none of the people in the city threw him so much as a second glance once the novelty of having him 'home' had worn off.
"He's not told you then? I've half a mind to go-" The rest of Carson's diatribe was lost on John as he tried to process it.
"It's a man?" He blurted, wide eyed with shock. For the past three weeks, he'd only been considering the women, hence the nearly horrific, traumatising experience with Teyla.
"Oh, Jesus Christmas," Carson mumbled, slumping back in his chair. "He's been in here telling me about how you'd been sent back straight as a punishment, but I didn't believe him. You've not had any idea, have you, lad? About your sexuality?"
"Are you kidding?" John asked, somewhat stunned. "I haven't even looked at a man, let alone had any reaction to-" John stopped abruptly as realisation struck him like a meteor from the sky decimating everything in its path.
Oh, Jesus Christmas, indeed.
There had only been one man who he'd had any kind of confusing reaction to. The signs were all there, he'd just read them wrong; the wistful looks, the clenching gut, the constant reminders from his friends that he was a good man.
"Rodney!? You're telling me I'm in some kind of deep and meaningful, committed relationship with Dr. McKay?!" John stood up suddenly, the chair spinning away as his calves collided with the seat.
"Cripes. I'm in for it now," Carson mumbled under his breath as he stood up to try and do some damage control. "Keep your voice down. It's not all that bad, John. Rodney's-"
"A good man, I know, I know. I've heard the spiel a dozen times before." John waved Carson off, pinching the bridge of his nose hard. "He's been avoiding me for three weeks, Carson. Three weeks. He's supposed to know me better than anyone else here, and he doesn't even have the balls to help me out?" John started pacing, gnawing on his thumbnail in agitation. Jesus. Rodney?
"Woah, John. Slow down. Two things you should think about before you go off on the warpath. One, this is very difficult for him, too. I imagine he's been holding himself back so he won't distress you. He never did have much self-control when it came to you. Two, I seem to recall that the pair of you were barely able to exchange two civilised words to each other when you first arrived." Carson raised a finger to silence John's protests before they could begin. "We've all agreed that this was most likely due to the culture you were exposed to before being returned here, so it's essentially being overlooked. What matters here is that you were both being protected from a negative reaction. You need to stop and think before you go barrelling into this situation, John."
John's mind was racing with images of Rodney's face going completely blank before he disappeared from view, of the few times Rodney had been coerced into joining the 'team' for dinner and had spent them practically silent and focussed on his food, of the way Teyla and Ronon would make excuses for him and.
This was. It was just. There was.
"You're right, I need to think," John muttered as he scrubbed his hand through his hair and squeezed his eyes shut. A brief thought flitted through his mind about how he preferred it when they were all tiptoeing around him because it was easier than dealing with all this. "I have to... go. I'm going to... go."
John turned and fled the room without looking back, not stopping until he reached his quarters and he could breathe again.
Rodney ducked back around the corner, flattening himself against the wall, seeing John walk out of the infirmary looking dazed. He didn't think he'd be able to survive this much longer. There were only so many excuses he could make, only so many times for things to nearly blow up and require his immediate attention. But John was always just there whenever he turned around, talking to people, running his hands along the walls and staring off in a daze, just generally being... present. It was really beginning to fuck with his head.
The more he saw of John, the more he wanted to see of John, but the more he wanted to see of John, the more he knew he had to back off or risk making however long it took John to get his memory back a living hell.
He really wasn't very good at this.
Progress had been slow. To say the very least. John had spent a day asking what surfing was because he could remember the word, but not what it meant. And that was just the beginning of the barrel of laughs.
Rumour had it that John was still convinced he had killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
He'd demanded Chuck give him the Reno gate address so he could go make reparations to the family.
Nobody talked much about that one.
Stepping out once he was sure John was gone, Rodney hurried down the hall, through the infirmary and into Carson's office, shutting the door heavily behind him.
"He only just left! How did you-" Carson sat up from his disheartened slump.
"What? No, it doesn't matter. I've found it!" Rodney dug his hand into his jacket pocket and dug out a small device with a trail of wires coming from it. "I saw it in the database when we first got here and dismissed it because it was, well, pretty much useless, because, well, yes, anyway. It supposedly helps people regain lost memories. I tried it and, well, I remembered that it was me who left the gate open when Jeannie's dog got out when she was four and I was, uh, yes. It works!" Rodney placed the apparatus on Carson's desk, bouncing on his toes with excitement.
"Think we should get John in to try it out right away? Excellent plan, I was just about to suggest it myself," He smacked his hands together, one quick, sharp slap before he reached for his comm..
"No, Rodney," Carson said, reaching over the desk to hold Rodney's hand back. "I'll look into it, but I don't think this is the answer."
"What? Why not? It's perfect!" He shook Carson's hand away and waved his hands towards the device.
"Sit down, Rodney," Carson said in a tired voice, closing his eyes to take a deep breath and break the news.
"Fine." Rodney slouched and dropped down into the chair opposite Carson.
"John's amnesia isn't memory loss, per se. The neural pathways are physically blocked. The blockages are breaking down, slowly, as his daily scans show, but this isn't a matter of stimulating anything. In fact, increasing the neural activity in those areas might end up doing more harm than good. I'm sorry." Carson's expression of sympathy was almost too much for Rodney to bear.
He rubbed his hands over his face, at his wit's end.
"I've searched everywhere and this was the closest to useful I could find." Blowing out a long breath, Rodney looked at Carson blankly. "I don't know what else there is I can do, Carson."
"I don't think there is anything. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just to wait. Let things happen naturally."
"Because I'm so well known for my patient nature." He threw a withering look in Carson's direction.
"If it's any consolation, things might start speeding up a little now," Carson said, eyes shifting guiltily.
"What do you mean?" Rodney had been harassing Carson for weeks for a way to speed up the process, but each and every time he'd been rebuffed.
"Well, John's been working a few things out for himself recently, and, well, I'm just saying that sometimes it's the smallest of cracks that bring down the dam." Carson fidgeted with the device, twirling the tendrils between his fingers absently.
Rodney narrowed his eyes.
"What have you told him?" He demanded, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk. If it was what he thought it was, all his hard work was going to be for nothing.
"I swear, Rodney, he worked it out for himself. He was asking about personal relationships, and... then he knew." Carson reached out and held Rodney's wrist, squeezing it tightly. "Give him time to think, Rodney. Don't go barrelling in there half-cocked. This might be just what he needed. A kick start, so to speak."
"You have no idea what you've done, do you?" Rodney stared at Carson, gobsmacked and numb. He let himself fall against the backrest of the chair, feeling like a heavy weight was settling over his limbs. "He's going to ask... questions... and there are questions I don't have answers for and it's going to be awkward and uncomfortable and, Jesus, Carson. He doesn't even like me. He thought he was seeing Teyla! What on earth would make you do this?!"
"Woah, lad. Wait, Teyla? No, don't even explain. I don't want to know." Carson shook his head and stood, walking around the desk to rest a firm hand on Rodney's shoulder. "You're such a bloody pessimist. But, listen: It's not going to be as bad as all that. So, John knows now. And he's thinking about it. One thing we know about the John we have is that he's not quite as stubborn and pigheaded as our John; if you present something that challenges his perceptions, he will think on it carefully." Carson gave Rodney a light push to spin the chair around to face him and squatted down. "Things may be awkward, but they are in no way unmanageable. We'll get through this. We always do."
Rodney nodded dumbly, there was just no arguing with some people, and Carson was at the top of that list.
"Fine. So, we get through it. I'll just-"
"Go back to avoiding him at every opportunity?" Carson cut him off, with a raised eyebrow.
"It's worked so far," Rodney responded with a jerk of his chin.
"Not half as well as you might have hoped." Carson said with a sad look in his eyes. He hefted himself to his feet and gave Rodney a stern look. "Give him time and for god's sake, lad, if he comes to you talk to him."
Rodney glared at Carson and got up, walking to the door. Opening it, he hesitated a moment. "Thanks, Carson," He said without looking back and hurried through, closing the door quickly behind him.
Time. He could give that.
John tossed and turned in his pitiful excuse for a bed but sleep refused to come to him. Rising up on an elbow, he aimed a couple of vicious punches at the paper-thin pillow and threw himself down. After a few moments of concertedly relaxed breathing, he huffed in frustration and rolled over again.
Two weeks. Two weeks since he'd found out he was apparently in a relationship with Rodney McKay and he was still no closer to working out who he was and why he—the other him—would do it.
He'd been watching McKay, compulsively, secretly, whenever he could, noting the little ticks and the mannerisms, and cataloguing all the bad tempered diatribes all the while trying to stay out of sight. People were starting to look at him strangely; the number of times he'd ducked behind Radek was ridiculous. Well, once was ridiculous given Radek's stature. Five times was pushing crazy.
John punched the pillow again.
McKay was petty, arrogant, obnoxious, loud, overbearing, and, possibly most disturbingly, shrill. He got worked up over the tiniest things and took it out on any person who was around.
Admittedly, John didn't know enough to know whether or not any particular crises had been averted because of McKay's antics; nothing had blown up, in any case. There had been a couple of times when there had been klaxons blaring and people running around shouting, and John being frogmarched to his quarters with a marine's hand firm on his shoulder, but then... nothing. No explosions, few injuries, no repercussions.
Okay, yeah; maybe McKay was a little bit smart. Or a lot. Again, John wasn't in any position to really know. McKay could outtalk an Ilyusi fishwife at gutting time, and the other scientists all deferred to him, but that didn't necessarily mean that he was right, just that he was petty, arrogant, obnoxious, loud, overbearing and shrill.
And then he was right back where he started.
He still knew very little about the man. McKay was still avoiding him, and he hadn't quite got the courage to track him down to ask specific questions yet. He'd been told that McKay had three PhD's—after weeks of listening to Carson's acronyms in the infirmary, he'd assumed it was some sort of embarrassing condition until a sniggering Lorne informed him otherwise—a sister named Jeannie who lived on a planet called Canada, and he was one of the brightest minds of his generation. Whatever that meant.
John had tried looking at him from different angles, too, trying to work out the whole picture in his head. He supposed McKay could be considered kind of attractive. When he wasn't talking. Watching McKay focussing intently on his work out at the edges of the city, he'd seen the intense concentration and precision with which McKay worked with his mouth closed and his hands dancing across circuitry there was definitely something there.
The biggest problem he was having was that he'd been told all these things about himself, and about McKay, and about his relationship with McKay. Well, okay, he hadn't actually been told anything specific about his relationship with McKay—other than Carson's slip that McKay didn't have any self-control when it came to John—but Carson had all but confirmed it. How was he supposed to figure out who he was and how he felt when all he had to go on was second hand information?
The few things he remembered weren't useful at all. He didn't remember McKay, Teyla, Ronon, anyone. He didn't remember his life, his job, his family, or his personality. All he remembered was Surfing, the Gloster Meteor, Johnny Cash, and the face of that damned woman.
His dreams were riddled through with her, dreams that apparently should have been filled with life sucking monsters and McKay. She was laughing at him, trying to tell him something, but he didn't know what. No matter how hard he wracked his mind, he could never remember what she said when he woke up. The words were indistinct but he knew they were important. Somehow.
He would have brushed it all off—wanted to brush it all off—but it was all he had to go on to find out who he was. A long board, a decommissioned British jet, and a dead songwriter weren't going to help him.
He pushed all thoughts of McKay, and whether or not he could see himself in a relationship with him, out of his mind and focussed on the woman. It was like he had to figure something out before he'd be able to know what she was saying.
Which, he thought, was pretty damned obvious by the fact that he couldn't figure anything out. He didn't think he'd ever forgive Elizabeth for making him go speak to that Heightmeyer person. All this soul searching couldn't be good for a person.
Sitting up, he grabbed the pillow and shook it forcefully, trying to mentally will it to have some sort of shape and support, before he threw it back down on the bed and lay down on his back. He smoothed the sheets out with his hands and closed his eyes.
He needed to figure out who he was. He didn't think he'd be able to work out McKay until he had more information. But, the only information he had was second hand.
The end game stratagem obviously wasn't going to work in this case; he'd need to work on it piece by piece.
So, if he couldn't figure out who he was from the inside out, maybe he should try it from the outside in?
He mentally gathered all the pieces of information he had together and considered them. According to the people he had spoken to he was generally a good man—one thing he and McKay apparently had in common. He was reserved, except around his team. He could be an enormous 'dork'—that word was never going to sit well with him—or he could be a cold blooded killer in the right—wrong?—circumstances. He was a friend. He was careful. He was considerate. He was stubborn. He was resourceful. He was determined. He never left a man behind.
He was a leader.
He was confusing.
The life John had known before coming here had been simple and straightforward. There wasn't this great need to compartmentalise and break yourself down into your component parts. You were who you were and that was that.
John Sheppard had so many pieces; he didn't think he'd ever be able to understand him. Not from the outside. Not unless Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard would let him in.
There were parts of him that nobody knew, nobody except for John. He could ask Teyla and Ronon and Carson and McKay to tell him about himself, but they could only tell him the parts that John had let them see.
Nobody really knew who John Sheppard was.
Possibly not even John Sheppard himself.
The thought was stunning, like it made something click in his brain. All of a sudden, he knew. He knew what the woman was saying. He knew her words and he knew a gate address.
He knew what he had to do.
Jumping out of the bed, sending the flat pillow and the thin covers flying, he grabbed the nearest pair of pants and shoved them on over his boxer shorts, tucking his t-shirt in and doing up the belt as he scrambled for the door. His bare feet beat along the hallway in a sure and steady—familiar—rhythm as he turned the corner and swiped his hand insistently over the sensor. Again. And again.
Eventually, McKay appeared at the door looking dishevelled and wiping sleep from his eyes.
"What?" He asked blearily, seeming disgruntled until he realised who was standing at his door. "John? Sheppard? What is it? Have you remembered something?"
"I have a gate address. We have to go there."
"Well, it looks like we have a hit. For once," Rodney said without looking up from his laptop. He tapped a few more keys before looking up and noticing that people were staring and waiting for more details. Carson was looking expectantly at him from the scanner where he had John laying down to take another reading. Teyla and Elizabeth were standing tensely beside the infirmary bed that Ronon was lounging on.
"Oh, sorry. Yes, it's, uh, well. It's interesting. Elizabeth, would you mind taking a look at this? Double check the translation?" Rodney waved her over and stood up, making room for her to sit down in front of the monitor.
She peered intently at the screen, finger poised to compare particular sections, and her lips were moving silently as she frowned and read.
"No, this seems to be right, but, it can't be." She paused and reread the section, Rodney hovering anxiously over her shoulder.
"I know, right? It's bizarre."
"It might be bizarre, but stranger things have happened."
"Will you just tell us what the bloody hell you've found already? We've all waited long enough," Carson griped as he helped John sit up and stared grumpily at the pair in front of the laptop.
"Well..." Elizabeth began, and Rodney could see she was gearing up for one of her meandering, vaguely interesting but mostly irrelevant monologues about the transportation of Earth cultures, so he cut her off and dived right in.
"It's Delphi. The database says the planet is Delphi."
"What? No..." Carson nearly dropped the hand scanner he was holding.
Teyla, Ronon and John looked at the other three quizzically.
"Delphi?" Teyla asked.
"Ancient Greek legend has it that the city of Delphi was home to an oracle, a future teller, the most famous and accurate of all in the time period," Elizabeth said absently as she continued to read the entry.
"There were studies done to show that the oracle was most likely influenced by an hallucinogen in the spring water the oracles bathed in-"
"But that does not change the fact that the prophecies given were some of the truest recorded, and that this Delphi also derives some of its fame from the seers who live there," Elizabeth frowned at Rodney, but he refused to feel chastened for pointing out the scientific discoveries that had been made since the Hellenistic period.
"What does this mean for me?" John asked hesitantly and Rodney felt like a complete heel for nearly crushing his hopes.
"It means that, providing the MALP telemetry comes back clear, the old line-up of AG-1 is back on rotation as of tomorrow." Elizabeth smiled, and Rodney couldn't help but feel a little bit excited, too.
One day. Twenty-four hours and they might finally have some answers.
He didn't know how they'd managed to miss the name Delphi coming up in the database, but that was just one thing that pointed in the direction of John getting his memory back. He just hoped that a lone gate address wasn't the only thing John brought back from the other side of ascension.
He looked over at Ronon, Teyla and Carson who were all enthusiastically congratulating John and wondered if it would all be over soon. John looked back at him, and he had a haunted look in his eyes; like he wasn't sure he wanted to go. Rodney smiled back, a little sadly. He didn't blame John for not wanting to go; it was one thing to wait for your memory to come back slowly, it was another to go out into the unknown and try to find it yourself.
Then again, he supposed, John was in the unknown either way.
Elizabeth walked over and gave John a tentative hug. He patted her back, but looked trapped.
"Okay," She said, pulling back to look to the room at large. "We have a long day ahead of us, I suggest we all go get some sleep." She emphasised the word as if to suggest that she knew that nobody would be sleeping much after this.
Rodney opened his mouth to protest when Teyla suddenly let out an indelicate yawn, barely hidden by her hand and looked around wide-eyed as if shocked by her own behaviour. Ronon chuckled, lifting John up into a bear hug and almost squeezing the life out of him. John was nearly purple when he landed on his feet and Teyla drew him down to her and closed her eyes.
Rodney couldn't help but feel a little overwhelmed by it all. More so than when he'd first seen John back in the gateroom.
Twenty-four hours, and he might finally have his whole team back.
John fiddled with his tac vest as he stood at the bottom of the stairs to the control room, avoiding looking at the stargate and all the possibilities it held. He tugged on the straps, adjusting and readjusting until Ronon slapped his hands away. It fit—perfectly—and that was half the problem.
"Stop fidgeting, Sheppard," McKay grumbled, standing in front of John to double check the fastenings and straps before giving him a slap on the shoulder and turning to see Lorne and his team entering from the left.
"All set?" He asked tersely. Receiving a nod, McKay yelled Dial it up to Chuck and turned to trot up the stairs as the wormhole engaged.
John watched the rippling shades of blue and silver, his heart beating faster and breath catching in his throat.
"Send the MALP through," Elizabeth's instruction rang out from where she stood on the balcony, hands gripping the railing tight enough to send her knuckles white.
It was a long tense moment as the large machine moved ponderously through the wavering puddle. John felt like he was going to pass out, holding his breath so long. Teyla elbowed him in the ribs and he choked out a gasped breath, frowning at her as she smiled serenely and took his hand in her own. Ronon took the other one.
This was getting kind of weird.
"I'm receiving telemetry," he heard Chuck say but kept his eyes on the gate. This was his chance, his one clue to who he was.
"Okay, we've got a breathable atmosphere and no life signs around the gate. Elizabeth?"
John did look up at that. He could barely make out the top of Elizabeth's head from where he was standing, but when she turned back to the railing he could make out the worry and the excitement warring on her face. She covered it up well, but John knew as well as she did that this was a long shot.
"Alright, then." She squared her shoulders and held her head up high. "AG-1, you have a go."
"Okay, let's move out. Step to McKay," Lorne commanded as he led the way towards the gate, sending his men through first before nodding to the rest of AG-1 and following.
John turned at the event horizon and looked back at Elizabeth as McKay made his way across the gateroom floor. Without really knowing why, he raised two fingers to his temple and waved them in her direction before closing his eyes and stepping through the gate.
His last thought before the wormhole engulfed him was that he really hoped he'd be coming back a different man.
"Welcome to Planet Canada," Lorne quipped as Rodney stepped through the gate behind John, Teyla and Ronon. "It's going to be a lovely day in the high seventies and-"
"Can it." Rodney glared—witty quips about the dullness of whichever planet they'd landed on were John's job—got out his scanner and aimed it around the clearing they'd arrived in, squinting into the distance. "Anything look familiar, Sheppard?"
He stopped looking at the scanner to study John's face as he stared wide-eyed around the area. There were no twitches or anything that gave any indication that anything was at all familiar.
"Sorry," John said with a shake of his head.
"Okay, then. In that case there are faint life signs out in the forest all around us, but I'd say it's a fair bet that we should head that way." He pointed at the mountains looming over them.
"Why that way? Why not some other way?" Lorne asked and Rodney was sure it was just to be contrary.
"As much as it greatly disturbs me to be the acting voice of archaeology: Delphi was situated between a pair of cliffs, the Phaedriades, at the base of which was the Temple of Apollo where arose the Castalian springs. Do you see any other cliffs around here?" Rodney raised a mocking eyebrow, waited a beat, before looking at the rest of the group. "So, if nobody has any objections...?"
Lorne heaved a sigh and hoisted his P-90 up into position, flicking a few quick signs to his men and taking point. "All right, move out," he called and they started walking towards the mountain.
Rodney, walking behind Teyla, Sheppard and Ronon, with a pair of marines bringing up the rear, watched Sheppard constantly from under his eyelashes, hoping that something would trigger some kind of memory and then the floodgates would open.
Unfortunately, Sheppard walked in silence, staring blankly at the passing scenery and showing no signs of recognition. Teyla chatted amiably to him, but he answered in monosyllables and eventually all conversation died off.
Maybe it was just some uncanny twist of luck that gave John seven gate symbols that lead to an actual planet. Rodney hoped against hope that it wasn't, and tried to keep focussed.
It was going to be a long walk.
Four almost interminable hours later, the shadows of the mountain stretching far behind them and turning the warmth of the day cool and brisk, they arrived at the outskirts of a stone and thatch town. A temple dominated the view, a pair of jagged cliffs refracting the light and framing the town with an odd natural symmetry.
It was breathtaking.
"You don't get much more similar than that," Rodney mumbled, beginning to be more than a little suspicious of the circumstances that had brought them here. He glanced over at John, and found that he was staring back, a perplexed frown furrowing his forehead. Rodney was about to comment, when he noticed they were being watched.
A pair of women, surrounded by an honour guard, stood at the outskirts of the town, people moving about their daily business behind them paying them no heed. They were both middle aged, their clothing reminiscent of a Greek period drama; floor length dresses dragging in the dirt and cinched below the breast, and dark tumbles of curls rolling over one shoulder. The one on the left stepped forward, shoulders back and chin held high, almost haughty, and addressed Lorne.
"We have been waiting for you. Come," she said, and with a flick of her hand, turned and walked towards the temple without further ado.
Lorne looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. Sheppard looked lost. Rodney shrugged. Lorne followed the women with a roll of his eyes, jogging to catch up with them, and attempted to generate a rapport to little avail.
"Anything?" Rodney asked quietly, walking closely behind Sheppard.
"Nothing yet, McKay," Sheppard ground out, keeping his eyes forward and focussed on the women who were leading them.
"Just, ah, let us know if you do. Recognise something." Rodney dropped back a little, but kept his eyes on Sheppard all the same.
The area they were being lead through was a series of narrow streets with closely packed whitewashed houses. They looked vaguely Mediterranean, which was something Rodney couldn't understand considering their relative distance from the nearest ocean.
They walked through the streets, under high hanging laundry lines and past pens with livestock in them, getting closer to the temple with each step. The people on the streets watched as they passed, but otherwise showed no interest.
They reached the temple steps and ascended to the top where two others joined the pair of women, helping them block the entrance.
"Send the supplicant forth," one of the new arrivals commanded, directing her gaze at John.
"Wait, woah. Supplicant?" Lorne said, stepping between them and John and holding his P-90 in a defensive stance. Rodney surged forward, too, ready to put himself bodily between John and the temple guards, which was a protective urge he didn't think he was ready to deal with yet.
John stared at the woman blankly, seeming relaxed.
"The one who searches for answers. He must be prepared for the audience." Her eyes narrowed as she spoke with imperious tones, obviously not used to people defying her will.
"Audience with whom?" Teyla stepped forward, placing a hand on Lorne's shoulder to hold him back.
"The High Priestess, of course. The Pythia." The woman looked at Lorne as if he were a particularly slow child, a mix of annoyance and patience.
"Seriously? That's actually the name?" Rodney pushed past John, stalking over and planting himself in front of her.
"Yes. It has always been so." The woman eyed Rodney with a confused look in her eye, as if it were strange for someone to come who did not know.
"This could not get any weirder," Rodney muttered. "Has this place always been here? You didn't happen to, ah, move? Here. From another planet?" Rodney didn't want to ask if they'd come from Earth. There was still the remote chance that this was all just a bizarre coincidence, a strange confluence of similarities which had no actual relationship to the ancient Greeks—or the Ancient Greeks—or Earth and they were all actually wraith worshippers.
"The temple has been here for centuries, as you can see by its obvious age. There will be time for questions later; we must prepare the supplicant for his audience," she said brusquely as she firmly gestured for Rodney to move out of the way.
"Wait just a minute!" Rodney exclaimed, taking a deep breath in preparation for explaining why that was wrong, wrong, wrong.
"Rodney," John said quietly, placing his hand on Rodney's shoulder to hold him back. He didn't need to. It was the first time in over six months that Rodney had heard John say his name, he was almost too stunned to even react.
"I'll go with them," John didn't look Rodney in the eye as he stepped past him and walked over to the priestess. He stood before her and nodded solemnly, a gesture she returned respectfully.
"John, wait!" The cry came in various forms from Rodney, Teyla, Ronon and Lorne. John turned in the doorway and watched them expectantly.
"You can't go in there," Rodney said desperately, wracking his brain for a reason why.
"Rodney is right, John," Teyla picked up Rodney's argument, much to his relief. "No team member is to be left alone off-world."
John smiled sadly and looked into the well-lit hall on the other side of the large doors and then back to the group trying to make him come out.
"I'm not on your team." John looked at the ground, huffing a mirthless laugh, and turned around to let himself be led into the temple and out of sight.
Rodney stared after him as the honour guard fell into a line before them and barred the way, a sinking feeling settling into his stomach. That might be the last time he saw John, and he hadn't been able to do anything to stop it.
"Take them to the Inn and answer their questions." The haughty priestess said, before passing between the guards and gesturing for the door to be closed behind her.
"Come," the remaining priestess held her arms open expansively and ushered them back towards the steps as the door closed with an ominous thud. "Your friend is in no danger, but the preparation and audience will take time."
Casting one last look at the heavy doors that stood between he and John, Rodney looked at Lorne and waited for him to make the judgement. He figured he'd berate the man soundly if he made the wrong choice, and then make the right choice for them.
Lorne's lips straightened to a thin line, but he nodded to the priestess and bade her to lead the way.
Rodney sputtered for a moment, intending to put his foot down, but Ronon lay a large hand on his back and subtly directed him to follow behind Lorne. He muttered under his breath as they walked; his way would have meant staying there and demanding answers.
Teyla drifted over to walk on Rodney's other side, effectively boxing him in, the marines falling into formation around them, as they followed Lorne and the Priestess through the darkening streets and alleyways and into the Inn.
Rodney really hoped they hadn't made a huge mistake not blasting their way into the temple and getting John out of there. He followed Lorne and the Priestess through the mostly empty Inn and over to a table near the fireplace. The priestess sat at the head of the table, Rodney pushed past Lorne to sit closest to her and stared her down.
John was led down a long hall, torches burning in sconces lighting the way, deep into the mountain and to a chamber. He looked around at the benches by the walls and the marble pool set into the floor by the back wall. Water burbled in through a hole in the wall and into the pool, a trough in the floor carrying away the excess before the pool could overflow.
He took a few steps into the room and stopped, turning to look back at the door where the priestess stood.
"Remove your clothes. You must bathe and soak. You will be attended to soon." She turned and left, closing the door behind her and leaving John alone in the cold room.
He moved to a bench on the far side of the room, removing his vest and putting it down before turning to survey the room. The torches-in-sconces motif continued around the room, casting long, flickering shadows across the walls. There were stairs leading down into the pool with water that got deeper and darker closer to the wall. The room smelled vaguely off, a hint of sulphur on the edge of his senses that was discomforting but not enough to nauseate him.
Getting down on his hands and knees near the trough, he tried to peer under the wall for a closer look. The water headed out and under the wall, but it entered a dark tunnel and he couldn't see any further than that.
With a sigh, he got up and walked to the door, testing the knob only to find that it was locked from the other side. He closed his eyes and counted to ten; he wasn't sure why but he found that focussing on his breathing helped him to remain calm. He'd have to thank Teyla for that, if he ever got out of here.
"You chose this," he muttered to himself as he opened his eyes and stalked back to the bench, roughly removing his clothes putting them with his vest. Naked, he moved to stand at the top of the stairs, looking down into the murky depths of the pool. He assumed that whoever was coming to 'attend' to him would be bringing towels, though he wasn't sure how he was supposed to bathe without anything to aid him.
He closed his eyes and counted again, keeping them closed as he took the first step. He was somewhat surprised to find that the water was warm, much warmer than he'd expected from the coldness of the room, and had a slightly thicker quality to it than most of the water he'd known. He waded in further, past his knees, up to his waist, until it was over his chest.
Under the water, he rubbed his hands against his arms and over his torso, making do with what he had to clean away the sweat and dirt of the three hour hike through the forest. Raising his legs one at a time, he scrubbed his hands over his calves and thighs and gave his feet extra attention. He ducked his head under the water and scrubbed his fingers through his hair, scratching at his scalp with his short fingernails before he surfaced for air. He wiped at his face, hair plastered to his forehead, and made sure to rub behind his ears as well as he could, before he ducked again to clear away the dirt and grime he'd dislodged.
He'd been bathing for nearly fifteen minutes, then, waiting for someone to come and tell him what happened next. Nobody came.
Floating on his back, he began to wonder how angry the others were going to be at him for just going blindly with the priestess when she told him to come. He figured Rodney would be frothing at the mouth by now, indignant with rage if the mission reports were anything to go by. Ronon and Teyla would be thin-lipped with anger, as would Lorne. He didn't know the marines that had accompanied them well enough to guess how they would be reacting, but he surmised that it would just be a variation on a theme.
The door swung open without warning, and another middle-aged priestess came in carrying a towel and a robe. She glanced at him warily and placed the bundle of cloth on the bench beside his other clothes and moved back to the doorway.
"Dry yourself and put on the robe," she said before turning and facing the hallway to wait.
John waded out of the water and walked naked, dripping and proud to the bench where he briskly dried himself off. He was still slightly damp when he picked up the robe and slipped it over his shoulders, tying up the belt at his waist, but at least he wasn't dripping any more.
He cleared his throat and waited for the woman to turn around.
She looked him up and down critically before waving him over.
"Your clothes will be returned to you after your audience. Follow me."
She led him down the hall and around the corner to a second room. It was decorated much the same as the first, but without the water as a prominent feature. There was a padded bench in the centre of the room on top of a thick rug; a pair of low tables on either side carried stacks of towels and small bowls of something that smelled warm and musky.
"Take the robe off and lie down." The priestess gestured to the bench and ducked her head out of the room, waving hurriedly to someone out of sight. "This is the final part of the preparation; you will be anointed and interviewed."
"Am I going to get answers?" John asked as he shucked the robe and it fall to the floor.
"That is why they come," the priestess said with a glare, bustling over to pick up the robe and hang it on a barely visible hook beside the door. She patted him on the shoulders in a particularly maternal way to make him move, explaining as she quickly set up the tables. "From many worlds, those who seek answers and knowledge come to seek an audience with The Pythia. Some are turned away, some receive advice, and a lucky few are granted that which they seek."
"What should I call you?" He asked as he lay himself face down on the bench.
"Tassia," she said, smacking him on the buttocks. He turned and stared at her in shock. "Front side first."
With a groan, he rolled over, feeling strangely exposed now that he was lying prone. "Happy now?"
"Not especially," she said, looking up as a second woman entered the room. They knelt on either side of the bench and dipped their hands into the liquid.
"Relax," Tassia commanded, picking John's hand and stroking the liquid firmly into his skin with a surety that spoke of many times doing this. The oil was rubbed up his arms and over his chest, each woman keeping to their own side as they worked.
John found himself relaxing; the crackle of the torches the only sound to provide distraction as he felt himself begin to drift. He knew he should feel tense, should be worried about what had happened and what was to come, should be continuing along the same emotionally neurotic path he'd been travelling since he arrived however many weeks ago. But he wasn't, and he didn't. He felt pleasantly numb, suspended in a haze of patchouli and sandalwood as though he were swinging in an olfactory hammock.
Tassia began to ask him questions, deep and personal questions mixed with seemingly irrelevant questions. He answered them, but he couldn't be sure exactly what he said. He wasn't sure how long it lasted, but she was silent as she finished oiling his front and urged him to turn over.
Lying on his stomach with his head turned to the side, the ministrations continued, as did the questioning.
He had gotten so used to the firm, strong hands sliding over his body that when the soft touch came to his shoulder, it startled him.
"Stand, John," She said in a soft, gentle voice. The second priestess, who hadn't spoken at all the entire time she had been touching him, intimately, brought over a tunic and arranged it over his shoulders. It was similar to the ones the women wore, but it only fell to his knees.
He was lead to the door where Tassia ushered the other priestess away before turning to him.
"You have passed the requirements for audience and will be taken to the Adyton at once," Tassia said walking out into the hall. John followed solemnly behind, for lack of a reason to stay.
Tassia fell silent as they moved deeper into the mountain, the weight of all that rock above him seeming to crush in on him as the door at the end of the hall came closer. He was finding it a little hard to breathe.
"This is where we part, John Sheppard. She is waiting for you."
"I assure you, he is in no danger," the woman said, holding her back straight and her head high, looking each of them in the eye gravely. "I am Alethea. The little mother has instructed me to answer you truly. Begin."
"Where is he and what are you doing to him?" Rodney demanded, resisting the urge to slam his fist on the table. Lorne glared at him and tried to smooth things over, but Alethea silenced him by answering Rodney respectfully.
"He is in the temple being prepared for the audience."
"What does this preparation entail?" Teyla asked, placing her hand over Rodney's wrist in support, but keeping her focus on Alethea.
"First he will be bathed from head to foot-"
Rodney made a choked sound causing everyone to look at him. Alethea eyed him critically, searching his face for some kind of answer, then closed her eyes and nodded once.
"What is it, McKay?" Lorne asked, obviously itching to get to the meat of the story but consistently being pulled back by Rodney's attention to detail.
"In Greece, anyone wanting to see the oracles had to wash their hands in the Castalian Spring before they could begin the interview with the temple priests. The only people who had to bathe from head to foot were, uh... Murderers." Rodney avoided looking at Lorne after the explanation, knowing that his face would be showing righteous indignation.
"This is true." Alethea said solemnly. "The rules do not discriminate based on the spirit of the action, only the action itself."
At that point, all sitting at the table, and the marines surrounding it looked at their hands, thinking of their own actions in that light and not liking the outcome.
"Once he has finished bathing, he will be anointed and interviewed. The interview process will discern if his claim is genuine, and if so, if he is ready for an audience." She finished her answer calmly without acknowledging the pause the others felt they had needed.
"Then what?" Ronon asked, and when Rodney looked at him, he could tell that Ronon had long since come to terms with what he'd done, regardless of why he'd done it.
"Then he will be taken to the Adyton and the Pythia will see him. It is not known what passes between the Pythia and the supplicant unless the supplicant chooses to reveal it."
A maid brought a round of drinks to the table without being asked, placing them in front of each person with minimal fuss as a second maid brought food to go with it. Ronon dug in and then threw a nod to Rodney.
In spite of the All Clear, Rodney didn't feel like eating. He pushed it to the side and returned his attention to Alethea.
"What happens then? He meets with her and...?"
"And then he will be returned to you."
"That is, as you say, it."
Rodney slumped. It was possible he'd be able to get more information out of her, but he didn't know how useful it would be. He had received no strange readings on the way through the forest and town, there was no indication that there was any ancient technology—initialised or otherwise—there was no real indication that there was anything wrong at all. The people were relatively friendly, the priestess was forthcoming with answers, and the food didn't appeared to be poisoned.
There was just the small matter of John being taken into the temple and nobody knowing what, exactly, was happening to him.
"Given that the Pythia gave us instructions prior to your arrival, the interview and audience process may take some time. It may be many hours before he returns. The innkeeper has been instructed to attend to you as required and to provide accommodation should it be required. Please, make yourselves comfortable." Alethea said and sat back to watch them eat.
Rodney rolled his eyes and looked to Lorne, waiting for some indication of whether they were going to wait, or bust into the temple and kick some ass and take some names. In spite of himself, Rodney was kind of on board for the second option.
Lorne looked back at him inscrutably before barely perceptibly shaking his head.
So they'd wait. They'd wait until John got back and then...
John took a deep breath and pushed open the door, feeling the weight of heavy incense settle over him as he walked slowly into the dark, sweltering room. There were no windows, and there were only two torches on either side of the dais at the far end of the room to light the area. A woman—the woman, the one from his dreams—sat on a high backed stool at the centre of the raised area, looking down at him with a smirk.
"You're early," she said looking somewhat impressed. "I was sure you would take at least a year to get this far. I knew you'd be an interesting one."
"Who are you?" John boggled. She was acting so familiar, and not at all like the austere figure of religious focus all the priestesses had intimated she was.
"Ugh," She gave a roll of her eyes and settled into a slouch on her pedestal, a pretty pout forming on her lips. "I always forget about the amnesia. I really shouldn't do, given that I'm the one who took it all away."
"You did this to me?" John was having a hard time understanding: this woman, this priestess, who acted like some sort of teenaged girl had taken away his memories? It just didn't make sense. "How did you do this to me?"
The Pythia sat up straighter and looked down at him with an arrogant eye—much more befitting a priestess of her calibre, John thought. As John watched, she began to glow, and slowly her limbs began to flow like liquid and turn to long waving tentacular appendages. She hovered about a foot above the dais and then began to drift towards him, until she was almost in his face.
John backed away slowly, feeling a thrill of déjà vu coursing up his spine and out to his extremities with a shiver of fear.
"W-what are you?" He stuttered, backing into the door and pressing himself up against it as if he could slide through and run away if he could just get his body to focus.
"I am as you once were; potentially limitless but hampered by unjust restraints. I am as you will be again one day, when you are ready." She changed again as she spoke, back to the way she looked when he first walked in, settling onto her feet gently with inches to spare between them. She was only as high as his shoulder, but after that display, he felt more than intimidated by her.
She tilted her head to the side and studied him carefully.
"Do you wish to return to the way you once were? Do you want your memories back?" She asked with narrowed eyes and a commanding voice.
"I don't know." He answered truthfully. It was like she could see inside him: every doubt and every denial.
"Interesting," She sniffed, backing up as if to take in the larger picture and looking him up and down. "Do you know who you are?"
"I know who I am, but if you asked me who John Sheppard is, I'm not sure I'd be able to answer." John relaxed slightly, feeling better once she had moved away.
"Who do you think he is?" She turned and walked down the long, thin room to seat herself on the pedestal once more, beckoning him forth to stand on the stairs.
"I... I don't think I really know," John shrugged, wondering if he was failing somehow. The pinched look about her features made him think that maybe he was.
"How would you describe him, based on what you have learned from his friends?" She asked, a calculating gleam in her eyes.
"John Sheppard is..." He paused, and studied her for a moment; she looked as though she were expecting something, something somehow profound. "John Sheppard is like a box without an opening; a cave after a cave-in. You know he's there, and he has an impact, but just by looking at him, you can't tell what's going on inside. He's a ghost." John frowned; he hadn't thought of it that way until just then. A small part of him hoped he wasn't right.
"Excellent!" The Pythia clapped her hands together with glee, her eyes alighting as if she'd just been told an hilarious joke. "This is truly excellent, John. It's sad that you've made so much headway. The games usually last much, much longer." She looked a little unhappy at that, turning her head to the side looking off into space as though remembering a better time.
"What does that mean? Did I pass?" John asked, not quite believing it could be that easy.
The Pythia turned to look at him once more, the look of haughtiness settling over her face like a mask. She stared at him for a long time, inscrutably.
"Almost," she said, and leaned forward as if to reveal a confidence. "There is one more thing I wish to know..."
"Yes?" John asked impatiently; he didn't know what was going to happen, but he was almost desperate for some visible sign of progress.
"What of Rodney? What have you learned of him?" A twitch at the corner of her eye betrayed her curiosity, her fingers grasping at the folds of her dress as she waited for his answer.
"Rodney? How do you know about Rodney?" John asked, denying to himself that he was stalling for time.
"I know many things about you which you do not, John Sheppard," She said in a superior tone of voice. "Your friends... your family... your self."
John tried to contain a shudder. If all he had learned about John Sheppard was true, then for her to know so much felt almost like a violation.
John looked at her blankly.
"Rodney is petty, arrogant, obnoxious, loud, overbearing and shrill," he stated in a monotone.
"Still in denial, I see," she said sadly. "You have no other observations you wish to share?"
John gnawed at his lip as he thought. He didn't know what she knew, but he didn't think that out-and-out lying would be a good way to go.
"Rodney is... confusing. He's all of those things but he's also loyal, courageous, lonely and... scared." John avoided looking her in the eye, afraid of what he might see there.
This was verging on the ridiculous now.
"We were apparently in some kind of relationship?" He framed it as a question; she was searching for something, but he had no clue as to what. He hated these sorts of mind-games.
"You are asking me because you do not know, or because you do not wish it to be so?" She glared at him. And, really, why were people so invested in a relationship he didn't even know he was in?
"Because I don't know him well enough to know if I would want to be in any sort of relationship with him; friendly or otherwise," John ground out, lashing out at her in a way he wasn't able to with Elizabeth or Teyla or even Ronon. It felt... liberating.
"Do you know how he feels?" she asked, and it felt like her questions would never stop.
"I-" John started, finding himself unable to answer the question while looking her in the eye. "He-... I think-..." He stammered and stuttered and tried again and again, but he couldn't find the right words to say what he suspected.
"He loves you?" John glanced up and her eyes were kind, if impatient and still showing a glimmer of calculation.
"He loves me," John whispered and it felt like a revelation.
"How do you know?" She climbed down from her perch and made her way down the stairs to stand before him, placing a hand on his arm and cupping his face to turn his gaze to hers.
"Because ... he stayed away." And John knew it to be true.
"You have done very well, John," The Pythia said softly and trailed her fingers lightly over his forehead. A silent whooshing sound, like the feeling of gravity in his bones, swirled through his body and sent him stumbling backwards. He flung a hand out to steady himself, and as The Pythia helped him to stand John was there.
"Pithy?" He asked, eyes widening with awe as he remembered. Everything—almost everything—was there from the time he ascended, to the time he found himself lying in a mud-puddle in the middle of an asqwami paddock being poked with a stick by a child. He remembered the past weeks and the complete ass he'd made of himself in front of almost everybody in Atlantis. But, most of all, he remembered Rodney. And what it was like not to know Rodney.
"I thought I advised you not to address me as such, John Sheppard," She said with a smile, drawing him out of his own mind and back into the real world, as it stood.
"How are you even here? I mean, you're ascended. Aren't you supposed to be off 'embracing intellectual pursuits'?" He may have said it a little snidely, but, then, after what he'd been through, he didn't think he could be blamed.
"I... yes, I should be." Her voice was terse as she responded, as though she were drawing on some deep inner well of strength to respond in a civil tone. "The 'enlightened ones', as they like to be called, are very much taken with punishment as a means to solve all their problems. This is mine."
"You're being punished? Like Chaya?" John began to wonder how many more myths and legends of the old world were going to reveal themselves to be in the Ancient versions of Alcatraz.
"Chaya is a bothersome child," The Pythia stated dismissively. "We shall just say that I am being punished, perhaps unjustly, perhaps not, and let sleeping dogs lie."
"Wait, if you're being punished, how were you able to help me?" John knew he should be doing as she asked and leaving things alone, but asking questions he shouldn't was what made him John Sheppard, after all.
He totally wasn't a ghost. Stupid amnesiac.
"There are ways," she said with an enigmatic smile. "Now, before you return to your friends, it is customary to give you some advice, being that you've come all this way to consult an oracle." The smile grew into a full-blown smirk and John felt suddenly uncomfortable.
"Okay..." He drawled, wondering what he was getting himself in for.
"Be." She stated simply.
"Excuse me?" A single word was not what he was expecting.
"Focus on being rather than acting and perceiving. Make your own nature, not the perceived opinion of others, your guide in life. You do yourself and your friends an injustice by holding yourself away from them."
"That's it?" John blinked, feeling somewhat insulted. He could 'be'. He could 'be' just fine.
"I can translate it to iambic hexameter if you wish, but it may keep you from your friends much longer."
She was mocking him. She was totally mocking him.
"I think I'll stick with the single syllable, thanks. Succinct is good. Succinct is my nature." He nodded solemnly, trying not to think about what translating the word 'be' into an epic poem would entail.
"As you wish." She rolled her eyes drifted back up the stairs and pulled a cord hanging almost out of sight on the back wall. A soft ringing sound could be heard through the heavy doors to the hall. "One of the younger priestesses will return you to your friends. May the winds be with you."
"Uh, thanks. And, um. May the force be with you." Not knowing exactly how to react to that sort of dismissal, John shot off a crisp salute—because, really, she deserved it for all she'd done—and walked to the door and paused.
"What would have happened? If I hadn't remembered you?" he asked, looking back over his shoulder at her, a sudden worry gnawing at his mind.
"It would have been very unlikely, but you would have eventually returned to normal," She stated as she settled herself back on her pedestal.
"How long would it have taken?" John didn't want to think about it, but at the same time he was hungry with curiosity.
"Three years. Possibly four if you were particularly slow." She seemed wistful, as though the six-month turnaround had spoiled her fun.
"Wow. That's, um. Thank you." He inclined his head towards her respectfully and pulled the heavy doors open. Stepping through, he felt as though he were pulling a blanket from his face, the cool air of the temple replacing the heady incense in the Adyton.
As promised, a young priestess—thirty-five at the youngest—was waiting.
"Are you ready to return, John Sheppard?" She asked sincerely, her quiet voice echoing in the vaulted hallway.
"I really hope so."
He followed her through the halls to a small room where his clothes had been laid out neatly. He checked to see that nothing was missing before quickly and efficiently dressing and returning to the hall.
"Word has been taken to the Inn. Your friends will meet you on the temple steps," she said as she gestured for him to keep moving.
John took a deep breath to centre himself and followed behind her into the labyrinthine twists of the halls. All he had to do was get out of this place and he'd be whisked away, back to Atlantis where the walls would fold around him, embracing him and welcoming him home.
John's palms were sweating by the time the young priestess guided him to the heavily barred front door. Six guards were needed to move the heavy bar—log was probably more appropriate—from the door for it to be opened. John wondered, not for the first time, just how many of the other John's blunders he'd be paying for: it was a wonder the team hadn't come in guns blazing after he'd walked in voluntarily and been locked inside the creepy alien temple.
That settled it: John Sheppard without his memories was a completely naïve dumbass.
The doors swung open with a heavy groan, revealing the imposing white columns and, beyond them, the darkened night sky. The air was cooler still out of the temple, a snap to the air that promised an early morning frost. There was a small crowd gathering on the stairs, the guards stationed along the temple steps, a few of the priestesses who had been locked out, Lorne and his marines, and his team.
His team with their concerned faces, looking at him with worry, as if not daring to hope that something good had come of the trip. Their expressions betrayed the fact that they were expecting the other John to come out, perhaps with a titbit of information, a smattering of knowledge that could lead them in the right direction.
He almost wanted to continue the charade; whirl out the big reveal at a time when it would have a lasting impact. Mostly, he couldn't wait to be himself again.
"Hey, guys. Did I miss anything?" He asked with a cheeky grin as he stepped out into the night. The collective gasp was gratifying to hear. The shift in emotion from worry, to surprise, to elation registered as clearly as a ringing bell.
"John?" Teyla asked with a stuttered step forward. It was the least graceful thing he had seen her do. Damn, it was good to be back.
"In the flesh. And then some," he grinned, holding his arms out as if to show off his new fleshy duds.
"It's good to have you back, Colonel," Lorne said with a relieved smile and a smart salute, echoed by the marines standing behind the rest of the group.
"It's good to be back, Major," John replied, slouching and aiming a lazy salute in his direction.
Then his team was surrounding him; Teyla pressing her forehead to his and murmuring her gratitude to some unnamed god, before he was pulled aside and into an expansive hug from Ronon, his head unfortunately being shoved far too close to the man's armpit for his liking.
Then there was Rodney.
Rodney who stood apart from the others, hands clasped tight behind his back as he looked on with a pleased smile.
"Colonel," he said with a nod. "So nice of you to deign to join us."
"You know me; hate to miss a party," John said as he casually began to walk towards Rodney, watching with a smirk as he held his hand out.
John threw his arms around Rodney, squeezing him tightly and lifting him up to the tips of his toes. He laughed as Rodney's arms flailed before finally scrabbling for purchase on his back.
"Damn, it's good to be back!" He exulted, and with a final, laughing squeeze, he set Rodney back to his feet, holding onto Rodney's shoulder to keep him steady.
"While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I have to protest the manhandling. Did you confuse yourself with Ronon?" Rodney complained in a grumbling tone that was completely contradicted by the radiance his smile.
"Sir." Lorne's voice interrupted any response John might have given. "As heart-warming as this reunion is, we're making a scene. We need to decide if we're going to head back to base, or impose on these people for the night."
John had forgotten how much of a killjoy Lorne could be at times. He hoped Lorne was behind on the paperwork that came with being the CO, just so he could dump it all on him in retaliation.
"What's the local time?" John asked, realising that the other him had never caught on to wearing a watch.
"Approximately, Oh-Six-Hundred, sir."
"And it was about a three hour walk here? We should be able to make it back before the mess shuts up shop for the night. What d'you say we head out?" John cocked an eyebrow, waiting for the inevitable protest from Rodney. He was almost surprised when Rodney muttered Three hours? Piece of cake. and trotted down the stairs without waiting.
"I guess that settles it. Do you want to do the honours?" Lorne asked, standing almost to attention and taking a tighter grip of his P-90.
If John hadn't been in such a good mood at finally having his mind back, he might be tempted to make a below-the-belt comment.
"Don't mind if I do. Rogers, Rodriguez and Taylor, cover our six. Ronon, Teyla, you're with me and Rodney. When we catch up to him. Lorne, Kemp, take point and catch up to McKay and get him to stop and wait. Alright, move out." John turned to thank someone before they left, but the doors were closing and there was no one in sight.
With a shrug, he hurried down the temple steps with the rest of the group, catching up to Rodney, Lorne and Kemp about midway through the suddenly deserted town.
John cuffed Rodney upside the back of the head for heading off alone and got a muttered diatribe about the pot calling the kettle loner as they walked the deserted streets the rest of the way to the forest.
The trip to the 'gate was mostly silent and dark, the thin beams from the group's P-90 lights criss-crossing in an eerie fashion providing the only illumination. Teyla, Ronon and Rodney quietly pestered him for details as they walked, but they all got the same response: when they got back so he only had to tell the story once. Needless to say, they were a bit perturbed.
Still, John held his ground and refused to divulge anything before they got back, and eventually they all walked in silence. He let his hand brush against the back of Rodney's as they walked closely together, feeling the thrill of touch as gooseflesh over his skin after so long in the ultimate hermetically sealed room. He didn't feel Rodney brush back very often, which confused him, somewhat.
He'd only been gone around six months; surely Rodney wouldn't have moved on in such a short time. He knew he'd told Rodney he'd come back, but both of them knew what a long shot that was. It was a miracle he was even standing there, let alone standing there with all of his memories intact.
Maybe he'd misread the situation.
John stopped touching him after that. It would only be another two hours or so until they were back at the 'gate. Then there would be a chance for them to talk, or for John to be informed that he had been post-humously dumped so Rodney could move on.
It was weird how, after so many months of waiting, this short trip felt like forever. He could barely fathom how long he had been waiting. It hurt a little to think that maybe Rodney hadn't been waiting at all.
John widened the distance between he and Rodney and lengthened his stride, yelling at the marines around them to step to.
Right now, all he wanted to do was get home.
They stepped through the gate at five pm, Atlantis time, to Elizabeth and Carson standing anxiously at the balcony, looking like they'd been waiting for a while. Lorne dismissed his team and glanced at Sheppard for his cues. John nodded his dismissal, and looked up at Carson and Elizabeth as Lorne left.
"Sorry, I'm late. Got caught in traffic," John said, and even standing behind him, Rodney could picture the twinkle in his eye.
Carson gasped and Elizabeth let out a triumphant 'Yes!' as they both ran for the stairs and came barrelling down to welcome John home. There was laughter and needling reproach for his blasé entrance, and hugs all around before Elizabeth insisted they be whisked away for post-mission evaluation. As she headed back up the stairs, she advised them that she'd be expecting a debriefing in the mess in two hours.
And that there may be cake involved.
Carson hurried John through the halls, barely giving him time to greet the people who had already heard of John's second miraculous return before he was in the infirmary and stuffed inside a scanner to check for any traces of the blockages he'd found.
Rodney was just being released by Biro when Carson let out a whoop.
"The blockages! They're gone! All of them!" Rodney could hear the amazement in Carson's voice from the other side of the infirmary. He smiled as he slipped quietly out the door, wondering how long before Carson would start writing a paper on the miraculous recovery. Or if he could at all.
In his quarters fifteen minutes later, as he was removing his tac vest and hanging it over the back of his desk chair, the door chimed. Rodney sighed. He knew what was coming. He shucked off his jacket and tossed it over the vest before answering.
John was standing on the other side, still fully kitted up, bouncing on the balls of his toes.
"Hey, Rodney," he drawled in a particularly lazy fashion. "Mind if I come in?"
"I thought you'd be in the mess trying to wheedle some coffee out of Corporal Jameson," Rodney said as he stepped aside, staring at the door as it slid closed behind John.
"That's your schtick, and I would never mess with your schtick. It's in the Guy Code." John nodded solemnly, hands folded behind his back as he surveyed the room.
"Ah, see, I only ever got a copy of the Geek Code," Rodney retorted, absently opening the laptop on his desk to check his email for lack of something to do with his hands.
"I'll forward you a copy," John moved across the room and stood close by. Rodney could feel the warmth emanating from him, and it was all he could do to not just reach out and slide his hands up John's sides and experience it for himself.
Rodney didn't respond, focussed on deleting the particularly stupid emails from his inbox so he wouldn't have to deal with any ill advised, and possibly unwanted, emotional outbursts.
"It's good to be back, y'know," John said quietly. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see John's hands fidgeting with a button on his shirt. "Same old Atlantis, same old John. Same old Rodney."
Rodney looked up, startled. John was biting his lip and looking apprehensive.
Rodney really hoped it meant what he thought it meant.
"I thought it was same old Teyla," Rodney said, carefully trying to keep his voice even.
"I am never going to stop paying for that, am I?" John's chin dropped to his chest, shoulders slumping in defeat.
"No, you're really not," Rodney said as he stood to face John. "So, you really think it will be same old John and same old Rodney?"
"I... Well, I- It's been six months. You didn't find it and you've moved on. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come here expecting... well, anything. Sorry." John ducked his head and walked to the door avoiding eye contact. He was just about to leave when Rodney managed to kick himself out of his stupor and grab at John's arm.
"Idiot," Rodney muttered, pulling him back to stand before him. "Complete idiot. Of course it's the same. It's always going to be the same."
"You got the note?" John asked, still seeming unsure if they were on the same page. Or possibly even in the same book.
"Of course I did, you emotional cripple!" Rodney squawked, smacking John in the shoulder, grabbing him and shaking him as if to make sure he was real. His fingers gripped at the fabric of John's shirt, clenching until his knuckles turned white. "You're here," He said, stunned. "You're really here. I didn't... I thought..." Rodney trailed off, gaze travelling slowly from his hand on John's shoulder up to John's face. His eyes were wide, showing white around the edges.
"I'm here, buddy." John mimicked Rodney's hold on him, sliding his hand up his arm and to his shoulder before slipping it up to cup the back of his neck. "I'm really here."
All at once, Rodney lost his steam, his inner reserve of strength and determination finally failing him. He let himself lean forward, pulling John towards him and burying his face in the crook of his neck.
He still couldn't believe it. It felt like he was setting himself up for a fall. So many times it felt like he was getting somewhere—trying to fix the machine, finding John in the gateroom, taking the device to Carson—but each time it was just another let down, another failure. Nothing he had tried worked. Nothing he had done had been enough. There was nothing in this situation that could prove to him that there wasn't just a rug ready to be pulled out from under him. All he could do was hold on and ride it out until the next wave came and everything crashed down around him.
It was only a matter of time.
John's arms came around him and grasped tightly. Rodney let himself be held.
"You know I'm not one for unwarranted declarations," John murmured into his ear, his lips brushing against the shell and the warm gust of his breath ruffling his hairline. "But, if we're ever unlucky enough to be in this position again—which we probably will be—I just want you to know that: It's the same. It's always the same. I don't leave people behind."
"You left me," Rodney couldn't help the accusation. It was right on the tip of his tongue, at the forefront of his mind, screaming to be let out. The rational parts of himself knew the whys and the hows, but the irritating, messy emotional parts couldn't recognise that.
"I came back." John held on tighter, pressing a kiss to Rodney's temple.
Standing there, surrounded in John in the middle of his room, Rodney felt it.
It wasn't a person or a place or an object. It was standing here, with his arms wrapped around... someone he felt the same about, and knowing that they'd both come back.
For each other.
The thought warmed him as much as it made him feel nauseous from the self-inflicted saccharine overdose. He raised his head and looked at John, taking in the lines around his eyes and the stray grey hairs around his temples.
"We have a debrief in half an hour," Rodney said, completely breaking the mood.
"I hear there's going to be cake." John twitched a smile.
"Excellent. Shower first?"
"Oh, god. It's been months since I've had sex." Rodney's eyes almost rolled back into his head at the thought.
"I haven't exactly been flashing it about town, either," John said with a lascivious look up and down Rodney's upper torso and a waggle of his eyebrows.
"I should certainly hope not!" Rodney sputtered, breaking land speed records as he dragged John to the bathroom and began to strip him. As they stumbled into the recess, wrapped up in each other, Rodney reassessed his stance.
Home wasn't a hallmark card hug in the middle of a musty room.
Home was a lathered up tangle of limbs in a shower.
"Pass me the flathead screwdriver," Rodney's voice echoed from beneath the console of the machine. John passed it to him, being careful to stay away from the platform.
Once was enough. More than enough.
"You'd think Elizabeth would have given the go-ahead to take this thing apart sooner," John said as he looked around the dimly lit room; it struck him as infinitely more creepy than it had the first times he'd been here. With good reason.
"That may, uh, been partially my fault," Rodney said as he wormed his way out from under the console and walked around to the other side. "I may have got a little carried away trying to fix it while you were, um, gone." Rodney studiously avoided looking John in the eye, bending down to unscrew a panel on the back.
"I heard," John said in a monotone, eyes flashing at the memory of the stories Teyla had told him of the months he'd been ascended. Such a stupid mistake causing so much pain.
John didn't even want to think about what would have happened if he hadn't pushed Rodney out of the way. There was no chance it could have ended half as well as it did for John, especially with Rodney's hyperactive nature.
"Either way, it is now officially out of commission." Rodney flourished as he pulled the final cord from the back panel and the entire thing went dark. Hopefully to never light up again.
"Awesome," John nodded firmly; the very thought of the machine lurking in the bowels of the city had been creeping him out for weeks.
"I was thinking, recently. This whole, what would you call it? Ordeal? Could have been much worse," Rodney said cheerfully philosophic as he packed up his tools and headed for the door.
"How so?" John responded following behind.
"Well, the DNA sequencer in it was only a prototype. We're lucky you mutated in the right direction." Rodney entered the transporter before John and pressed the destination closest to the mess.
"Upwardly mutated?" John quipped half heartedly, too busy being thankful that Rodney was focussed on John being the one doing the mutating.
"I'm just mentioning it because you're incredibly lucky. What's that saying? Always the flyboy, never The Fly?" Rodney had his outrageously self-gratified smirk plastered over his face as they walked into the mess.
"That... That was awful. How long have you been waiting to set up that pun?" John scrunched up his face as if to ward off the horrendous wordplay and resisting the urge to point out that he had been once. Technically.
"About a week." Rodney grinned, grabbed a muffin and a bottle of water and wandered over to sit with the rest of the team on the other side of the mess. John picked up a couple of pieces of fruit—100% citrus free—and ambled along behind, wondering what he'd done to end up this way: from Pseudo-Superhero, to Actual Superhero, to Amnesiac, to Plain Old John Sheppard.
John didn't know if he was the unluckiest bastard in the universe for having it all happen to him, or the luckiest bastard ever for surviving it.
He sat down at the table as Rodney was promising to show Teyla and Ronon The Fly and John shuddered inwardly.
He didn't know what he'd done to deserve it, but looking at the gleefully intent expression on Rodney's face as he explained the plot of the movie to a dubious Ronon and Teyla, he knew he wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
Except the bugs. He'd happily trade the bugs.