All Falls Down
Big Bang 2007.   Forks in the Road: Tao of Rodney - Rodney ascends.
And maybe this was why people spent their entire lives preparing to Ascend, because there was so much to get over and make peace with to be able to really do this, to abide by all of the rules that they were supposed to abide by, without fucking it up. He would have needed another whole lifetime to be able to not want to be back there, every single second.
McKay/Sheppard, Dex/Sheppard
Word Count
45616 words
There is an entire gaggle of people who are responsible for me making it through the months and months of this process, which were scary and great all at the same time. Many, many thanks to everyone on my f-list who read this in various stages of doneness or helped me work out the details, and kept me going (I'm sure I'm forgetting someone – sorry!): lovelokest, llassah, aerye, misspamela, shoemaster, and shihadchick. The biggest, glomping thanks to strangecobwebs and cold_poet for stepping up to beta this monster and doing a fantastic job. And last, but certainly not least, big thanks to brooklinegirl (who read 45,000 words of SGA fic for ME, because she loves me like that) and minervacat for reading the final draft of this, and telling me that it doesn't suck.
Companion Artwork
  • All Falls Down by aesc
  • All Falls Down - Trailer by Genie
  • Coming night by aesc

I. courage, teach me to be shy

Rodney generally felt that he was good at most everything.  Maybe not at women or shooting the broad side of a barn, but almost everything else.

He admitted, though, that he was spectacularly bad at dying.  At first, the whole superhero thing had been excellent - he finally got to confirm all of his suspicions that people were talking about him behind his back because he could hear them now, and it was satisfying that he could be smug about it, at least.

Then there was the overwhelming brilliance thing, which was really the very best part.  All of the things that had been spiraling above him, just out of reach for years, were finally close enough to touch.  He spared a moment to be sorry that he wasn't actually this smart, and then he greedily stuck his hand out and grabbed all of it.  Every bit of knowledge that had eluded him.

He wasn't even tired, didn't really want to sleep at all; he just wanted to sit up all night in the lab and pour out pages and pages of equations onto chalkboards and computer screens and paper, all at once.  He was solving problems that had been in front of the SGC for years in just a few hours, and it felt like a blessing, a gift unlike anything he could have ever imagined.

The telekinesis thing was pretty cool too.  The look on Carson's face when Rodney moved him up into the air with ease was priceless.

But it wouldn't have been Rodney's life if spectacular brilliance and telekinesis were not accompanied by certain death unless he could "free his mind."  His mind, which had never been free from racing, swirling thought for a second in his entire memory.  His mind was always going, always working, barely stopping in his sleep.  He supposed that this - science and exploration and fixing things - was what he was best at because he never stopped thinking about it.  He woke up in the morning with visions of a new way to route power from the ZPM to vital city defense systems, sat down in senior staff meetings while developing new theories on the vulnerability of Wraith hive ships, ate dinner at the mess and talked to his team while destroying existing astrophysical theory, and fell asleep every night with visions of the stars behind his eyes.  Just like that map of the universe that Sheppard had thought into existence while sitting in the control chair in Antarctica.

Rodney loved his work - he was almost obsessed with it - and everything coming easier didn't change how much he thought about it or how many waking hours he spent on it.  He looked at Elizabeth like she was totally fucking crazy when she told him that he needed to release his burden.  His burden was the whole goddamn universe - two whole galaxies, at least.  His burden was every single soul on Atlantis.  He supposed he had the ability to be a pompous ass sometimes, but he wasn't wrong in that they needed him there, that they depended on him for their lives, over and over again.

The burden was heavy across his shoulders every day, but it was his, and he didn't know how to give it up.  How to stop thinking, searching, trying to do something.

He understood Ascension, from a purely detached standpoint.  As he told Elizabeth, he'd read everything in the database he could, hoping he could come up with a way into it, a way to understand what he was supposed to do, what formula he could apply to the situation, but he knew that it wasn't that easy. And it was driving him insane.

He wanted to spend every minute he had left filling his mind up, using it to its newly discovered capacity, instead of trying to let things go.

Then, in a moment of clarity and minor panic, he placed his hand on Radek's chest, and watched in almost-horror as he healed Radek's wound, bringing him back from the brink of death.  Elizabeth and Sheppard looked on in shock as well, and he couldn't handle that.  He didn't want it.  He thought, for a fleeting, frightening instant, that he would give up every moment of insight he'd been given since he stepped in front of that machine and it had, literally, stolen his life, not to have this.

John thought Elizabeth had finally, after these few long, hard years on Atlantis, lost her mind, because there was no way on earth (or Atlantis, for that matter) that he should be the one to teach Rodney to Ascend.  First of all, he'd never actually Ascended, despite spending six months working on it.  He was sure he could have, if he had chosen to, but he ultimately hadn't.

He also wasn't sure that a knowledge of Ascension as garnered from a less-than-trustworthy Ascended woman and an about-to-be-Ascended woman was exactly what Rodney needed.

And then there was the whole issue of Rodney dying, which was fucking him up more than he cared to admit.  It wasn't like he didn't wish death on Rodney to his face on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but it was completely different contemplating him actually dying.  John had been living with this low-grade queasy feeling in his gut since Elizabeth told him what she had discovered about that stupid Ancient device, and it wasn't going to be made better watching Rodney try to leave his physical body and move on to a higher plane of existence.

And still, he couldn't say no, couldn't possibly have looked into Rodney's eyes and told him that he wouldn't help him, wouldn't teach him to survive beyond death.  John had stared down his own death way too many times in his life, from the barrel of a gun or the touch of a Wraith, to deny someone that.  Especially Rodney.

So here they were, Rodney sitting cross-legged on his floor, and John was suddenly flooded with something that felt like regret that this was the first time Rodney had ever sat on his floor.  They had never hung out alone, not like this.  Just meals with Ronon and Teyla, the occasional movie night in Rodney's quarters with the rest of the team, or kicking Rodney's ass at video games in various places in the city.  Despite Rodney being the most irritating man in two galaxies, John liked him, and if he had regrets now that Rodney was dying, he could only imagine how Rodney was feeling.

"So why am I here?" Rodney said, glaring at John.

"Elizabeth made me," he said flippantly, and then instantly regretted it, because it wasn't the truth, not at all.

Rodney looked slightly hurt, but then he sighed and said, "Oh.  Yeah.  Me too."

Rodney was really, really bad at this releasing his burdens thing; he wouldn't even shut up for long enough to give it a good try. John would chalk it up to him just being Rodney, but he could see the tightness in Rodney's face, the new lines next to his eyes - Rodney was scared shitless, and John couldn't blame him.

But they were getting nowhere at all, and Rodney was spread out on his back on the floor.  John had to swallow, hard, because there was no way this was going to work, and he was having a hell of a time focusing while watching Rodney with his hands folded together on his chest, like he was already dead or something, like he was at his own fucking funeral.

"Now, the sky is clearing, and all of your troubles are fading away..." John said softly, trying to make his voice soothing, rhythmic.

Rodney smiled, and John couldn't help but smile back.  "Bright blue sky.  I am there."

The machine beeped and Rodney looked almost triumphant, but then everything went to shit.  Because Rodney couldn't do this - John should have known that Rodney couldn't just sit still and contemplate his existence while the whole universe as he knew it was crashing down around him.  Rodney sighed and pulled off the headband attaching him to the machine.  "I just realized why light behaves as both particles and waves."

John understood, he did - he knew Rodney well enough to get it.  But he also didn't want Rodney to die.  "Rodney, if you don't try to do this -"

"I know, I don't have much time left."  And with that, Rodney was up and fleeing the room, running away from this, running away like John had never seen him do before.  Rodney wasn't always the most courageous person, but he never ever backed down when something needed to be done and always followed it through, even when he bitched and complained.  John had never seen someone pull so many miracles out of his ass just when they needed them, like it was nothing, even though John knew that it was something.  That Rodney could be cowed by something like dying, which they faced at least once every single day here, almost seemed wrong.

John stayed on his bed after Rodney left, flopping down to his back to stare up at the ceiling.  He remembered what it was like when Teer and the others Ascended - he remembered what it was like thinking about going with them, but choosing this life instead.  Rodney didn't get a choice, not a good choice, anyway.  It was either die and get nothing, or die and get to be an Ascended being for the rest of time.  Where John had gotten to choose life or Ascended life, Rodney was going to lose this - lose Atlantis, for god's sake - no matter what.

No wonder he was freaking out.

John closed his eyes, and tried hard not to think about all the times Rodney had saved them, had saved John specifically, and what they would do without him.  Rodney would die - and maybe he would Ascend, maybe he wouldn't - but they might all die without Rodney, at some point.  John wasn't sure he could do Atlantis without Rodney.  He'd never had to, and he was starting to think that he really didn't want to, either.

Rodney knew that it made him look like he was some recovering alcoholic in a twelve-step program, trying to make amends with people.  Or maybe like he was a desperate man making a last ditch attempt for enlightenment, but it actually wasn't about that at all.

Elizabeth said that maybe he was trying to use his work, use science as a cover for things he lacked.  In more personal arenas.  His first reaction was to balk, because he had never needed to care what other people though about him, or his relationships with them, and why should he start to care now?  Except when he started to think about it, he realized that he did care about these people.  Elizabeth, Radek, Teyla, Ronon, Carson.  John.  He hadn't wanted to care about them, to feel like this, but they'd somehow managed to disable the force field he had had around himself for so many years, and now they were inside.  And it didn't matter that it would be easier to leave now if he'd never had that, because there it was.

These people had been there for Rodney, every single time he needed them, and he had generally been a complete shit to each and every one of them on most occasions.  He saved their lives, and he hoped that said something to them that he'd never been able to say, but facing one's own imminent demise didn't seem like the time for subtlety.  He needed to say what he needed to say, to each one of them.

Radek was easy - well, easier than most.  Rodney was pretty blatantly insulting to him, on most days, but he knew that Radek was brilliant, the best that Rodney could have hoped to work with on Atlantis.  Radek looked stunned when Rodney told him that he was sorry, and babbled on about the bubble of hostility (god, where had he gotten that one from?  He blamed Heightmeyer or Elizabeth and their new-age crap) he created to mask his own insecurities.

"I hope you can find a way to forgive me for all the things I've said and done to you. You deserve much better than that, so I wanted you to know that."  And then he left, because this was hard enough as it was, to say these things that he probably should have said months or even years ago, and he couldn't stand there while Radek tried to figure out what to say.

Teyla was a little more difficult, because he was never really mean to her, never ranted at her about her stupidity.  Rather, he often ignored her or took her for granted, or got distracted when he was talking to her by looking at her breasts in one of those tight half-shirt things she was always wearing.  He knew Teyla was pretty awesome, and he hadn't taken the time to get to know her very well, or to understand her at all.

Rodney tracked down Halling, who was in the city meeting with Elizabeth and some botanists about some issues with crops on the mainland, by waiting outside of Elizabeth's office until they were finished to ply him for information about something that he could do for Teyla.

When he showed up at her door, the ceremonial tea set clutched in his hands and the dishes clattering together slightly because his hands were shaking, Teyla looked shocked and genuinely confused.  Rodney pushed past her into the room before she could turn him away.

"Hope you don't mind.  I was talking with Halling and he happened to mention that it was the anniversary of the death of your father next week."

"He did?" Teyla said incredulously, probably believing less that Rodney had actually been talking to Halling voluntarily than that Halling would share that kind of information with someone who was Teyla's friend.

"Okay, I might have asked a few pointed questions," like whether or not there was something he could do for Teyla, something that she would appreciate, "but I just thought it would be nice if, uh..."

Teyla said thank you, and sounded so grateful that Rodney was suddenly flooded with regret that he hadn't done this earlier - that he knew how it felt now to be kind and good to these people who would have returned it, in spades, this whole time, and this was going to be the only time he got to experience it.  Ever.  He forced out a small smile as Teyla sat down on her bed, and Rodney kneeled down, placing the tea set on the floor and handing one of the small cups to Teyla.

"You're doing well, Rodney," Teyla said softly, her hand coming out to rest on Rodney's shoulder, fingertips straying to his neck.  Rodney leaned into it, leaned into her, and let her touch him while he poured her tea and spoke the words that Halling had taught him and pretended that the idea of never being touched like this, at all, ever again, wasn't breaking his heart.

He stayed with Teyla for a while, even though there were other things he needed to do, going through the entire hour-long ceremony with care, and when he was done, he got up off of his aching knees and sat down next to her on the bed.  She reached out and pulled him close, pressing her forehead to his, and said, "You are loved, Rodney McKay.  Do not forget."  It was the first time in his life that someone had said that to him, point blank, just like that, and he didn't know what to do, what to say.  This was exactly why he protected himself, all the time, with sarcasm and bitterness, because he didn't know how to handle this.

Finally, he managed to croak out "thank you," and then Teyla was squeezing his hand hard before he got up and left the room.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do for Ronon.  He figured, on some level, that it was easier because Ronon seemed to be annoyed with him all the time, if not indifferent to him, and also seemed to need nothing and everything all at once.  When he finally caught up with him, Ronon barely slowed down, and Rodney just launched into asking him about his scars.  If he wanted them.  If they were a warrior's badge for him, somehow.

Ronon spoke, his voice empty and steady. "I try not to let things I can't change bother me."  That was enough; that was all Rodney needed to hear.

"That's very healthy," Rodney said, and after looking around to make sure no one was coming, he dragged Ronon into a hug, pressing his hands into Ronon's back.

It was a strange feeling, being able to heal someone with his hands, even after doing it once already.  He was used to fixing things - that was his job, to fix - but to heal was a completely different story.  Ronon's back was strong and firm under his hands, and he could tell by the hesitant way Ronon's hands came up that he didn't know what the hell to do with a dying man, who had never touched him before, hugging him.  It was almost like energy was just flowing out of his hands, nothing bright and flashy like he might have expected, just a little warm, and he could feel the marred skin beneath Ronon's shirt mending itself, the jagged, scarred edges coming back together like they used to be, before Ronon had gone through seven years of hell at the hands of the Wraith.  Ronon made sense to him, the way he was, after all of that.  He was a fighter, like everyone else on Atlantis - he just went about it differently than others did.

Finally, he pulled away, when he could sense that it was done.  "I hope you don't mind," Rodney said quietly.  "I just healed them."

Rodney left Ronon in the hallway, no doubt confused and trying to figure out if Rodney had actually done what he said he'd done, and went to Elizabeth's office, giving her the only thing that he knew how to give her - some chronicle of what she'd accomplished with this expedition.  The opportunity that she fought every day to give all of them, and that someone, even if it was just those of them who already knew first-hand what kind of leader Elizabeth Weir was, should know what she'd done.  What she'd meant.  He knew it wasn't going to make a bestseller list, even if the Stargate program was declassified, but it was for her, and he hoped she knew what he was trying to say.  That he was trying to say thank you for giving him the chance to see and live in this place, even if it was for entirely too short a time.

After Rodney left there, he was at a loss.  He'd done everything he'd planned, made his peace with the people he needed to, and now there was only one person left, and he couldn't think of what to do, or what to say.  So instead, he spent the next hour wandering the halls of Atlantis, saying goodbye to her, the city that he had loved so tenderly and so completely, more than any lover he had ever had in his life, and who was the one he was most worried about when he thought about leaving.

He ran his hands over the walls, talking softly, under his breath, watching her light up faintly for him.  It was nothing like when John just walked through the hall and it was a palette of muted colors and Rodney sometimes swore there was music, but she lit up for Rodney too, even if it was for his synthetic gene.  He could fool himself into thinking, if just for a little while, that it was because he healed her, like when he put his hands on Ronon's back or Radek's chest, that it was because he had been the one who had tried, for the past two and a half years, to restore her to what she once was.

"Be kind to them," he breathed out gently, even though the hall was empty, and it was a remote part of the city.  "They'll do their best by you, as much as they can.  They love you."  He got a soft, pink light for that, and he found himself smiling.  He knew these were his last moments with the city, with Atlantis, and she was lighting up for him.  She understood him.

"Take care of them, please," he said.  "Take care of him."  By the flash of green and purple, Rodney knew that she understood, and that she, like Rodney, existed in large part to protect and please John Sheppard.  Rodney hadn't realized that about himself, until he was faced with not being able to do it anymore. John managed to get himself into more life-threatening situations than Rodney could even imagine someone could, and Rodney always had to try to get him out, and who would do it now?  After all, they'd gotten in the habit of saving each other's lives.

When Rodney looked up, his hand still against the cool metal of the wall, he was at the door of John's quarters.  He didn't know how he got there - if Atlantis somehow helped to carry him, or if all roads, so to speak, led here.

Rodney had somehow managed to forget about Ascension, had given up on it, almost, until he got here, and realized that the only way he'd ever see any of them again, see Atlantis, see John, was if he tried harder.  At least if he Ascended, he would be able to watch over them, somehow, or maybe even come back someday.  Resolved, he reached out and knocked.

When John heard the knock, he stood up and waved his hand absently in front of the sensor, and the door slid open.

"Hi," Rodney said, looking exhausted and looking everywhere but right at John.  "Mind if I come in?"

"Nope," John replied, stepping aside and letting Rodney come in, the door shutting after him.  "How are you doing?"

Rodney dropped down to sit on the floor, leaning back against John's bed, his eyes closed.  "Shitty.  Really, spectacularly shitty.  And kind of great.  Uh, yeah."

John laughed, because he regularly didn't understand a word that came out of Rodney's mouth, especially when he and Zelenka got going and the physics got past John.  This was plain English, but it might as well have been advanced string theory, for all John could make it out.

"Listen," Rodney said, as John sat down next to him on the floor, his thigh resting close against Rodney's.  Rodney turned to look at him.  "Can we try again?"

John almost said that they'd never tried, not once, because Rodney was close, and he smelled like the ocean and the lab and himself, and John was having a harder time dealing with the idea that he was down to probably only hours of having Rodney around.

He focused his eyes and noticed that Rodney was staring at him, the headband for the Ascend-o-meter, as Rodney had taken to calling it, in his hands.  God, he was such an ass, of course Rodney meant the meditation thing.  He wanted to John to help him Ascend, not help him out of his clothes.

"Yeah, sure."

"Excellent," Rodney said, laying down and assuming his position on the floor.  Rodney closed his eyes, and John distracted himself from that by getting up and lighting some of the candles around the room that were left over from the last time.  He sat down on the floor, where Rodney had been when he first came in, and he was close enough to Rodney that he could feel him.  If he just reached out his hand across the small space between them, he could touch him.  John was surprised by how much he wished that was part of who they were to each other, because he wanted that.  To be able to do that.  For Rodney.

John talked Rodney through the first part of the meditation, the bright blue skies part, and Rodney's eyes were closed tight, his breathing gone shallow and even.  He wasn't talking, which was at least a start.

The monitor beeped, and Rodney said quietly, "What's it down to?"

"It's not important," John shot back, but Rodney was, well - Rodney, and he half sat up to look at the monitor himself.

"Of course it is!  It's got to -" Rodney grabbed the monitor and glared at it.  "What?  Seventeen hertz?  It's not even close!"

John wanted to soothe Rodney; he wanted to reach out, again.  "It's closer than you've ever been."

Rodney shrugged him off, and pulled the headband off of his head, holding it in his hands and looking down at it.  "Look, if you have to keep asking, you're obviously not getting it. This is about letting go," John said gently.  Rodney looked totally lost, like he thought he had been working on letting go, and had just realized that he wasn't, actually.  When Rodney looked up, his eyes were welling up.  Fuck.

"I don't know how to do that, okay? I'm me — I don't know how not to be me."  He blinked rapidly, and John looked away, because he knew exactly what Rodney meant.  And he wouldn't want Rodney to not to be Rodney.  "Look, thank you for all of your help. I think in the grand scheme of things, we're -" Rodney stopped, just for a moment, holding John's eyes with his own.  "We're good, aren't we?"

John hadn't known what he was expecting, if he thought that he would get some grand romantic gesture before Rodney died.  Maybe he thought Rodney would sweep him up, like in some old movie like his mom used to watch, and bend John back and kiss him.  Or something else that didn't even make sense, because when he really thought about it, they weren't that to each other.  But there were a million different things in that look, and in those words.  Rodney was asking him if they had anything left to say to each other, if Rodney had to do or say anything to make things right between them.

John wanted to tell Rodney that he didn't want him to leave - that he'd spent the last few days thinking about nothing but the fact that Rodney leaving might be the shittiest thing that had happened to John in a long time, if not ever.  That he desperately wanted Rodney to stay, but it wasn't like he could ask.  It wasn't like Rodney could choose to stay, even if he wanted to.  He wanted to tell Rodney that he kind of loved him, that he thought he had for a while, and that this was so ridiculously hard, it took his breath away.  He wanted to tell Rodney that he was the best thing about Atlantis, and that he had been for a while.

Instead, he just said, "Of course," and hoped like hell that Rodney heard everything he wasn't saying in those two short words.  He knew he was a shit for not saying anything when he really didn't have anything to lose, but he couldn't make himself do it.  He just held Rodney's gaze, Rodney's blue eyes cloudy with regret and fear.

Rodney looked away.  "Right. Look, if it's not too much trouble, I'd like you to read my eulogy," he said abruptly.

For fuck's sake.  Jesus. "I refuse to discuss that," John said shortly, pushing himself up off the floor to sit on the bed, needing to get away from Rodney before he did something drastic.  This was just another thing that Rodney would figure out, and he'd pull off a miracle in the last ten seconds of the game, and be the hero.  For himself.

"Just keep it simple. Make up a few nice things. I'd like my little sister to be there," and god, John was going to have to get word to Jeannie, he hadn't even thought about that, "and, oh, you should know that I told Beckett that he should most definitely do a full autopsy. He can use my body for any kind of experimentation that might prove helpful.  Oh, and I'd like to be cremated, with my ashes to be thrown out into space from the Jumper -" Rodney was up on his feet, pacing a very small circuit on the floor.

This was crazy; he didn't want to hear any of this, not one word.  He stood up, trying to figure out how to, for once, make Rodney McKay stop talking.  "Rodney -" He extended his hand, hoping that he could coax Rodney into calming down.  He couldn't plan for Rodney's death, even though it was inevitable at this point, because he would have to admit how much it was killing him too.

Then, Rodney lurched forward, grabbing his head and crying out in pain.  John panicked, because he didn't think it would happen so soon.  He thought he'd have a few more days for Rodney to try to do this, to maybe actually succeed at this whole Ascension thing like he'd managed to succeed at pretty much everything in the Pegasus Galaxy, up to this point.

John caught him on his way down, Rodney's body rapidly curling into a ball.  "Rodney!" he exclaimed as he eased him down onto John's bed, reaching up to open a radio channel to Carson.

When Rodney came to, he was flat on his back in the infirmary, getting oxygen through a cannula.  There was a crowd around him.  The last thing he remembered was telling John what his final wishes were, and John subtly but undoubtedly freaking out over it.  He remembered John standing in front of him, close, right inside his personal space, reaching out - god, what a shitty time to start dying.

Carson was talking to him, telling him that he didn't have much time left, that his brain was operating at too high a capacity and that his body would soon shut down.  "When Ascension occurs naturally, the physical body's no longer necessary in the final stages," Elizabeth said gently from the other side of the room, where she was standing with John.

Rodney knew, even without them saying it, that this was the end.  He wasn't going to leave this bed.  It was taking every bit of effort he could muster to even keep his eyes open, and he was just so tired, even though his mind was racing with a hundred - a thousand different things that he didn't have the energy right now to comprehend, but he could feel even greater understanding at the edges.

Ascension was a higher state of evolution, the SGC files had said, and those who has Ascended knew more about the universe than a human ever could.  Just tasting that knowledge - the knowledge that he had spent his entire life chasing after, that he had spent years in higher education and at labs around the world and with the Stargate program trying to pin down, and now it was all at his feet.  It was just his luck that he had to die, sort of, to get to it, once and for all.

"There must be something we can do," John said, sounding almost frantic, like he was grasping at the universe for ways to keep Rodney here and alive, and Rodney was grateful, but almost certain that even John Sheppard couldn't pull out a Hail Mary to save this one.

Rodney opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  He cleared his throat gently.  "It's okay," and, god, was that his voice?  It sounded weak and thready and nothing like how he normally sounded.  "You know, I'm actually feeling a sense of peace - interspersed with moments of sheer terror, of course."

John looked at him, and suddenly everything in the room - everything Rodney could focus on was John, who was standing there looking like he was about to lose his best friend.  And wouldn't it just be Rodney's luck that he figured that out as he was about to die.

"Rodney, as far as this Ascension thing - I know you didn't have much success, but at this point, what have you got to lose?"  The look in John's eye said that he thought Rodney could do this - that he wanted Rodney to do this, so that he could at least die, in one sense, and keep living, in whatever way he could.  Higher plane of existence and all that.

Rodney smiled, just the small movement taking everything he had.  "May as well go out fighting, huh?"

John smiled back, and Rodney was going to try, because knowing that John believed in him, or was at least pretending to for Rodney's benefit, helped.  Carson handed him back the headband, and Rodney closed his eyes, letting the clear blue skies that John had talked about come into his head.  He imagined that was what the sky looked like when John flew, which wass why it was what John thought about when he was working on Ascending.  He imagined what John must have felt like, in planes and helicopters, thousands of feet about the ground, that incredible rush and freedom.  He could feel himself lightening, like his body was coming loose from himself somehow.

"Rodney, you're a good person," Elizabeth said quietly.  "Know that we love you."  And Rodney wanted to hate how much that mattered, but it seemed pointless to care anymore about being weak, or emotional, because this was his last chance to know these people, his last chance.

"You love me?  Really?  All of you?"  The room was silent, and Rodney could tell that they all did, even if they weren't saying it.  They wouldn't care about him dying if they didn't.  They wouldn't be there if they didn't.  But mostly, he just wanted to see if he could make John say it, just once.

He opened his eyes, just a little, not enough for them to see, but enough that he could see that John looked wrecked.  "In the way a friend feels about another friend," John said, almost stuttering, and Rodney could hear in those words everything John wasn't saying.  They had been friends, they had spent countless hours together, and John cared about him.  Rodney had always known that.  And maybe John couldn't say that in a room full of people, but Rodney heard it loud and clear, and he could feel another part of himself letting go of this place.

"You're just saying that because I'm going to die," Rodney shot back, and then he closed his eyes tightly.  John was talking to him, telling him to focus on the blue skies, to let go, and he could hear the monitor beeping, maybe down, maybe up, and it felt like letting go, but maybe that was just what it was like to die.  He had no idea.

"Oh my god," Carson said, awed, and Rodney could feel himself bursting forth, like a flower opening in the spring for the first time, and he felt like he was moving.  He struggled to see what was happening, and when he looked down, he saw the empty bed, the monitors making the steady long beep of death, even though they were no longer attached to anything.  He saw Carson and Elizabeth and John, looking up at him, and the entire room was full of a bright, intense light.  He'd never felt like this before, this intense feeling of weightlessness and peace and like everything made perfect sense, for the first time ever.

Then, the infirmary was gone, they were gone, and everything was light.

John had heard about Ascension.  He'd known Ascended beings and read about Ascension in SGC files.  He'd talked to Daniel Jackson about it.  He'd had somewhat creepy, Ascended sex with Chaya, or what he was pretty sure was sex, as much as it could be.  He'd even been ready to Ascend himself.

But nothing, nothing he had ever seen or heard or known could have prepared him for watching Rodney's body become pure energy on that bed, the life seeping out of him completely before the great tendrils of light rose up, above everyone, just hovering at the ceiling of the infirmary.

Truth was, he hadn't been convinced that Rodney could do it.  He was maybe the least enlightened person John had ever met in his life, and he was incredibly bound to the physical world, which made sense.  He spent his whole life trying to understand it, even when he finally got to Atlantis.

But Rodney had done it, and that shouldn't have surprised John either.  Rodney had pulled off more miracles than any person had the right to in the last few years and this was just one more.  The last one.

The room felt dark and cold when the light disappeared, and Carson pulled up the sheet, like he didn't know what to do without a body, but Rodney was long gone.  John stayed in the infirmary for a long time after everyone else had left.

II. stones, taught me to fly

Rodney found that he was having to revise everything he'd every known about, well - everything, now that he had Ascended.  He'd read the files, and he understood, from a purely intellectual standpoint, what it meant to Ascend and how it worked, but now that he had done it (and, well, that had surprised him as much as anyone else), it was nothing like that.  Words couldn't describe it, not at all.  No SGC report, not even Sheppard's first-hand witness of the path to Ascension could capture it.

On one hand, it was the most incredible thing Rodney had experienced in his entire life.  He had been to other galaxies, more planets than he could count, and he had solved more scientific mysteries than anyone else had ever even attempted.  But none of that compared to the sudden, bone-deep understanding that he had, of every single thing that had been out of reach his whole life, that had been at his fingertips since he stepped in front of that machine and turned it on and changed everything.

He understood all of the little mysteries that he could never quite grasp, and everything was as clear as if the glass between him and the truth had simply been clouded with dust and grime, and evolving past his physical being had allowed him to wipe the glass clean.  Like it had been there the entire time.  Every small thing that had waylaid him for hours, days, weeks even, was just - answered.  Like that.  It was an immensely peaceful feeling.

On the other hand, being Ascended was the most infuriating experience Rodney had ever had.  He kept hoping that he would just wake up already and this would all be a dream, but it was very, very real.  And then he would remember that he was, actually, sort of dead, or maybe disappeared in Atlantis, and that he was going to live forever as this amorphous ball of light.

It was driving him insane.

Rodney hadn't realized how much he thrived on physical things.  The feeling of the parts of a naquadah generator under his hands, his fingers flying across a laptop keyboard, the smooth, cool metal of his P-90.  He was a physicist, and higher, theoretical thinking was certainly not beyond him by any means, but he was also an engineer, and needed to know how things worked, how they might help someone, somewhere, and like this, he was bound to the rules.  The rules that were communicated to him when he first Ascended.  No interfering.  You can look, but not touch.

He didn't understand that at all.  He didn't know how to do that.

That was why he stayed away from Atlantis.  It was true that, as an Ascended being, he knew how they were doing, each and every one of them.  He knew how far away the Wraith were and what the Genii were planning.  He couldn't help know those things, even if he tried not to.  But he couldn't bring himself to really know, because this was too hard already, and he didn't trust himself to allow them to "exercise their free will" if he could truly see how bad they were sure to be fucking it all up.  All of Rodney's hard work, for all of those years, damaged beyond repair.

So he thought about the stars, about the universe and its infinite vastness (an idea which, he was disappointed to find out, didn't have the same mind-blowing capacity when you were Ascended and you understood the whole universe), about how to construct a hundred, a thousand ZPMs, if he wanted to, because now he knew how and it didn't matter, how to defeat the Wraith and restore peace to the Pegasus Galaxy, once and for all.

Sometimes, Rodney tried to contemplate his existence, which he knew was a part of this whole thing, somehow, but inevitably, it always came back to floating away from that bed in the infirmary, his colleagues, his friends watching him leave and not having really had a chance to say everything he wished he'd said.  What he did say was only part of it, it was only one step, but all of this time just to think made him realize how much he'd still held back from them.

They were his family.  They were the people who rescued him when he got lost and forgave him when he fucked up and laughed and cried with him, and they were everything.  He missed them, and he knew that he shouldn't.  That it was the best thing, the only choice, at the time.

Honestly, he couldn't stop thinking about John.  John helping him Ascend, even though it was highly unlikely that it would be successful.  Everything that was hanging in the air when Rodney asked John if they were good, which came out sounding more like he was asking if they had anything that they needed to resolve, anything that needed to be said before Rodney could Ascend or die, whichever came first.  But instead, they said nothing they probably should have said, and while Rodney tried not to have many regrets, he left with a whole slew of them that he would never be able to truly let go.

The thing was, he cared about John.  Which was maybe why he didn't have a grand gesture for him, there at the end, because there was nothing big enough he could have done to contain what he wanted to say.  He could have given John a hundred puddle jumpers and a dozen Daedalus-class ships and his very own Ronon-style gun, but what good would that have done?  Rodney knew John was hot as shit, in the way that made Rodney's heart pound around inside his chest without his permission whenever John smiled, but he hadn't known that he was in love with John.  He really, really hadn't, and it was so monumentally, ridiculously unfair that he would have choked on the bitterness if he could, anymore.

Because what he should have said, before the cruel and unusual universe stole away his pathetic, puny, lower human existence, was that he was kind of in love with John, and had been, without really knowing that that was what that feeling in his chest was, for a long time, almost since the beginning.

Now that he was Ascended, and everything made sense, it didn't matter, and if that wasn't a punch in the figurative gut, Rodney didn't know what was.  So he stayed away, tried not to know, as much as he could, because sudden enlightenment really shouldn't hurt this much.

The days and weeks following Rodney's pseudo-death and Ascension were some of the strangest and more surreal that John had ever experienced.  And that was saying a lot considering that he lived in a different galaxy and had been fed on by a space vampire more than once.

The mood on Atlantis was somber, like you would expect it to be after someone important had died, but there was also an undercurrent of anticipation.  Like Rodney would show back up someday, just like that, and they could all be happy he came back and move on.

Zelenka had hastily been promoted to head of the science division, mostly since the scientists seemed to be flailing around without someone to yell at them, and Zelenka had clearly learned from Rodney in that regard.  He was a little more careful with them than Rodney had been, but he still knew when to cow them into submission.  John usually had to leave the lab when Zelenka laid into one of them, because just the look of terror on the offending scientist's face had him missing Rodney so much it took his breath away.  It happened more and more, the missing Rodney, even though people were careful not to mention him.  Careful to pretend that there wasn't a huge, obnoxious, bitchy Rodney-sized hole in Atlantis that nothing and no one could fill.

John was actually sitting in his office, which had a fine layer of dust over everything, when Elizabeth appeared in the doorway, knocking gently on the frame.  "Do you mind?" she said, smiling softly.

"Nope, knock yourself out," he said, gesturing to the chairs in front of his desk.  Elizabeth was looking at him searchingly, like he was some kind of Ancient tome she was trying to decode and translate, and John quickly looked down and started rearranging papers on his desk that were covered with Lorne's neat, precise handwriting.

Elizabeth cleared her throat.  "Well, I was thinking - it's been a few days, and I was wondering if you thought -" and it was so strange to hear Elizabeth, the consummate diplomat, grasp for words, "that is, I think we should have a memorial service for Rodney.  Now, I know it's strange, being that he isn't really dead in the strictest of senses, but I think it might be a good thing for everyone to have some closure."  Elizabeth paused, looking at John intently, like she was waiting for his approval.  Like it was his to give.

He felt a raw, jagged laugh coming up his throat, and he pushed it down.  He didn't want Elizabeth to think he was cracking, even though he was becoming more and more convinced that he might actually be.  "Yeah, okay.  I mean, I promised him - he wanted me to read his eulogy, bring Jeannie here, and have his ashes scattered from the jumper.  We can't do the last one, but people probably need something."  John didn't need a damn thing, and he was trying to stay calm, stay neutral, the way he had been since Rodney fucking died on that table and then floated away as a massive, glowing light, but it was so hard to pretend that this was like any other time they'd lost someone here.  Each one hurt, and John carried them all with them, civilian and military, and always would, but this was Rodney, and John couldn't be stoic about it.  He couldn't make it just like all the other casualties, a hazard of the job, no matter how hard he tried to push it down.

"Okay, good.  Would you like to send word to the SGC to contact Jeannie, and see if she can come?  I can make the other arrangements."  Elizabeth leaned forward in the chair, stretching one arm across the top of the desk, her hand clasping John's forearm.  Her hand was warm and small, and he steeled himself not to flinch at the touch.  Everything felt all wrong, and he might be the one still fully human, still in his skin, but he felt completely mixed up inside himself.  He let her touch him, because he knew that she needed it, and she couldn't ask anyone else in Atlantis to give it to her.

"No," he said quickly, and Elizabeth pulled back, "I mean, yes, I'll get them to let Jeannie know and get her here, but I can do the rest too.  I - I'll do it."

Elizabeth leaned back, her feet planted solidly on the floor, considering him.  "Okay.  Let me know if there's anything I can do," she said, and left without saying the things that he was sure someone would, soon enough.  Like sorry and I know and I miss him, too.

John let himself wallow, just for a few minutes, dropping his head down on a pillow of his arms on the desk, and closed his eyes.  Except all he could see when he closed them was Rodney's face, his eyes damp, his expression earnest and anticipatory, wanting to know if they were good, and John was never much for regrets, but they were slamming him in the face now, like bricks, and he fucking hated this, so much.

Sighing, John picked up his head, and turned to his laptop to start typing the letter to Jeannie that would go out in the next data burst to Earth.

Truth be told, John hadn't slept since before Rodney left.  He stayed up each night, trying to figure out ways to help Rodney Ascend and not thinking about Rodney maybe dying, until he actually went and did it.  Then he gave himself one night of staring up, wide awake, at his ceiling before he got up and got moving.

Atlantis was eerily quiet in the middle of the night, even though he knew that if he looked, he might find a scientist in the labs (he would have found Rodney there, for sure, almost every night) or Elizabeth doing paperwork or translations in her office, but walking through the halls, the residential corridors and the science wing, it was like he could imagine what it must have been like here, before they arrived.  Atlantis asleep and quiet and not yet ready to give up her secrets to just anyone.

Even at night, she gave up her secrets to John.

He walked through, and without saying anything out loud, he talked to her and told her things, his own secrets.  How he was scared that he maybe missed his chance, and that he hadn't actually believed, with all the crazy miracles that they had managed to pull off since they got there, that Rodney would actually go and Ascend and leave him there alone.  He wasn't sure he could do this, without Rodney.  He'd never had to before.

Because Rodney always saved the day, even if John, admittedly, fit the part of the stereotypical hero a little better.  Rodney was usually the real hero, thinking his way into and out of situations almost faster than John could keep up.  He made everyone feel stupid, all the time, but sometimes, when John was bored in between crises and stalking the labs, Rodney would push a page of equations across the table with an irritated huff, and John would glance up from the page, quickly, to see Rodney smiling at him.  Rodney always expected the best and the most miraculous from John, and John expected it back in return.  Rodney almost never failed them, and never gave up.

Rodney had quietly been John's hero, for all this time, and he hadn't even realized it until Rodney was gone.  It kind of made him sick to his stomach.

The hours passed quickly as he walked, sometimes picking up to a jog when he reached the uninhabited parts of the city, sometimes just a gentle, easy stroll with his fingertips brushing the wall, and Atlantis always rose up to meet him. Sometimes, he closed his eyes, like he couldn't in the dark of his room, in his bed, and let her guide him, and he could almost feel Rodney beneath his hands, like a ghost memory of something he'd never had.  Like Rodney was still there, inside the walls, somehow.

John was always careful to be back in his quarters before he knew the larger morning patrols started, and if anyone knew how he spent his nights, they weren't saying anything, and John wasn't telling.

Everyone was dealing in their own way, John noticed, as he started to plan Rodney's memorial service.  He spent his nights now thinking about what Rodney would want, asking Atlantis with his hands what Rodney would want.  She knew Rodney as well as she knew John; Rodney had spent countless hours with his hands on her, trying to make her better, make her stronger.

Teyla came to him early on, and offered to help, in any way she could.  It was good, because he knew that Teyla understood grief and loss in a way that John couldn't even begin to comprehend, and she stood by him, not pushing, just letting him be.

And one morning, after a night of racing through the halls, grasping and searching and feeling like he was losing his goddamn mind, he showed up at Teyla's quarters, panting and out of breath.  She nodded, and promptly took him down to the gym and beat the shit out of him, completely merciless, knocking him on his ass over and over again until he was bruised and battered as much on the outside as he was on the inside, and couldn't even get up off the floor.  He felt raw and completely torn apart, and better than he had in days.

Teyla had the stick planted into his chest, right over his heart, and it hurt, god, it hurt so fucking much.  John snaked his tongue out to lick away the blood on his split lip.  Finally, after a few long, excruciating minutes, Teyla let up, reaching down a hand and lifting him to his feet.  He felt like he was dying - everything hurt - but he winced and fought through it.  Teyla looked at him, and pulled him into a hug.  No foreheads touching, just strong arms wrapped around him.

"I miss him too, John," Teyla said quietly against his ear.  "It is all right to grieve him."

Ronon was a different animal altogether, and some days, John forgot that Ronon had lost more than any of them - possibly all of them put together.  Because while Teyla had lost her family, she still had her people, whereas Ronon had lost everything and everyone.  Atlantis and its people were all he had, in the entire universe, and it was easy to forget because he just pushed through everything without seeming like it really got to him.

It was Ronon who came to John, in those first days, flopping down on the floor next to John's bed and asking if John wanted to run or watch a movie or spar.  Mostly, they just sat, and Ronon talked, which was enough to kind of freak John out.  Ronon spoke more words in those first days in John's quarters than he had in over a year on Atlantis all put together, telling stories about his time in the military on Sateda.  It took a few days for him to get to the stories about the war, about the culling.  About Melena and his family and every person he had ever known.  John let Ronon's grief, so frankly exposed, wash over him, and anchor him in the rhythm of Ronon's voice.

After Ronon finished telling him about Melena, about their promises and their plans and how, finally, he had lost her, he stood up and took John's hand in his.  It was shockingly tender, and John didn't want to pull away.  Ronon turned John's hand over, his palm up, and bent down to place John's hand against his face.  "He was a good man, John.  A good friend.  You won't forget him."

Elizabeth did what John expected her to - kept herself working, pushing through whatever she might be feeling by burying herself in paperwork and reports and John knew she wasn't sleeping much, either, her lights always on when he walked by the control room during his nightly journeys.

He kept trying to plan; John knew Rodney pretty well, and he knew that Rodney tended toward the dramatic and the maudlin, when left to his devices.  But he also knew that Rodney never really felt like he belonged, that people cared about him, and ultimately, he would just want to know that he was missed.  He would want people to say that he was a good person, a great scientist, and that he mattered.

John wanted to give that to him, even if he really didn't know if or how Rodney would see it, how he would know.

"Incoming wormhole," John heard over the PA system as he jogged into the gate room, the blue, watery swoosh of the gate activating in front of him.  He took the stairs two, three at a time, until he was standing next to Elizabeth.  "Colonel Carter's IDC, ma'am," Chuck said, lowering the shield.  John went back down the stairs as two blond figures came through the gate.  Jeannie McKay Miller, carrying a small bag and looking like John felt, flanked by Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Samantha Carter, whom John had definitely not been expecting.

"Hey, Jeannie.  Listen, I'm -" He was going to say he was sorry, but Jeannie cut him off by dropping her bag and hugging him, hard enough to take his breath away, and he hugged her back, holding on tight.  "I'm sorry."

Jeannie moved away, her hands on John's shoulders, gripping him.  "Shut up, John, okay?  It wasn't your fault.  It wasn't anyone's fault."  John nodded, because Jeannie was such a mom.  Her brother was dead, sort of, and she was trying to comfort him.

"Still," he said quietly, and Jeannie picked up her bag and walked past him, brushing her hand across his shoulder as she passed.  John looked at Colonel Carter, who was standing there like she didn't know what to do with herself.  "Hey, Colonel.  We weren't expecting you."

Carter sighed.  "Yes, I know.  I just thought that I should come.  Despite how it may have seemed, I had a lot of respect for McKay, and, well," she looked directly at John, lowering her voice and smiling just a little, "I sort of liked him when he wasn't trying to get in my pants."

John laughed, and it sounded utterly strange in the half-quiet, the only other sounds those of Jeannie greeting Elizabeth and the others behind them.  He hadn't laughed once, not once, and it felt good.  Liberating.  "Rodney would have loved to hear that."

In the end, the service was simple.  John found a botanist who had been a concert pianist, in another world and another life, and he played Chopin's Nocturne in B-flat minor on a keyboard that was a Marine's personal item.  Jeannie said that Rodney spent years playing that piece as a child, endlessly fascinated by its mathematical patterns.  John remembered hearing it coming out of a laptop's tinny speakers in the lab once or twice.

Then, people spoke.  Elizabeth talked about Rodney's accomplishments, how he was a leader and a hero on Atlantis.  Teyla sang and Zelenka talked for a few minutes about the privilege of working with Rodney for these years, even though he was a pain in the ass.  Jeannie talked about Rodney - Meredith - as a kid and how proud she was of him, and sorry that she didn't get to know him better as an adult.  And then, surprising to everyone, including John, Ronon stood up and recited what John assumed was some sort of Satedan prayer, his eyes closed, the language like nothing John had ever heard before, flowing from Ronon's mouth.

Carter even got up and spoke about all of Rodney's scientific accomplishments, and that the scientific community and the Stargate program were losing a vital member.  John thought that, through her perfectly put together Air Force veneer, she wasn't having as easy of a time letting go of McKay as she might like everyone, including herself, to believe.

When it was John's turn, he stood up, making his way to the front of the packed gate room and clearing his throat.  "I, uh, I promised Rodney I'd do this, but now, I don't really know what to say.  I miss him." He looked down, taking a deep breath.  "I think we all do, and we need him around here a hell of a lot more than I think we even know.  And it sucks that he's gone."

He stood there, willing himself to say something to the sea of people who were staring at him, waiting for his guidance, for him to be the leader that he never thought he would be, but it wasn't coming.  He couldn't make himself say that Rodney would be missed, and that he was a great person, that he was the most brilliant scientist who was ever born.  Not that those things weren't true, but mostly, John just missed his friend, and he was angry.  He was so, so angry with Rodney for just fucking off and leaving him there.

So, he just looked up, at wherever he imagined that Rodney might be now, floating and glowing, and then walked away, through the crowd and out of the gate room, until he was jogging, and then running, until he was out of breath and at the edge of the city, the water sparkling and calm and surrounding them, just like any other day.

A little while later, while everyone else was eating and probably drinking, John showed up at Jeannie's assigned quarters with the box under his arm.  He knocked softly, knowing that even though she was Rodney's sister and would probably feel obligated to stay at the service longer than John had been able to bring himself to, she must have had to leave.  Eventually.

Sure enough, the door slid open, and Jeannie was standing there, her hair pulled back away from her face, into a ponytail, and already changed into a pair of worn jeans and a t-shirt.  "John," she said, smiling.  "You want to come in?"

"No.  I just came by to see if you'd be up for a little trip."  John held the box out to her, and she took it gingerly from his hands.  She looked at the box critically, and she looked so much like Rodney squinting at a computer screen or a broken jumper that he almost staggered.

"Is this -" she started, and John shook his head, because he almost didn't want to say Rodney's name in reference to the plain, unmarked box that might hold what was left of his body.

"Oh, no.  He said he wanted his ashes thrown into space from the jumper, but there wasn't a — when someone Ascends they don't leave behind a body.  I just got some stuff from his room instead."

Jeannie nodded back, and slid on her shoes.  "Thanks, John," she said, smiling, and walked out with him.

They were silent in the transporter to the jumper bay, John's eyes not leaving the box in Jeannie's hands, which contained one of Rodney's favorite t-shirts and a disk full of equations he'd been working on and a Star Wars trilogy DVD set.  It was as if this stuff was tangible proof that Rodney McKay had ever been there and had ever existed.  It was hard enough not to reach out and make Jeannie give it back, to put it all back in Rodney's room, like he was about to come back and get it.

"So, how much did the SGC tell you?" John said as he sat down in the jumper and the control panel came up.  Jeannie sat down, hard, looking in awe at the controls as John manipulated them.  She still was surprised by everything Atlantis was and did.

John glanced over at her, and she was looking down at the box in her lap.  "Well, they explained that Rodney had gone to a higher plane of existence.  That he no longer needed his body so it became energy, or something.  I talked to a Dr. Jackson, who apparently was like that, for a while, and I have to confess that I didn't understand most of what he said."  Jeannie laughed, and then looked at John.  "Honestly, all I could think is that I had no idea how Rodney could release his burdens and let go."

John smiled back, because she was the first person to say that she was surprised that Rodney did it.  Everyone was thinking it, but no one was saying it.  "Yeah, I was surprised too.  I still don't know how happened.  Just that he died, sort of, and then there was light and then nothing."  He pulled the jumper smoothly out of the jumper bay, letting it loose in the sky.  "I guess that's what we get for doubting him, huh?"

"We should have known better," Jeannie said, and soon they were passing through the atmosphere, dense and opaque, the starry sky opening over them, and John took a moment to see it the way he knew Rodney had every single time they did this.  The universe was huge and open and terrifying, and he wished Rodney were there to explain it to him, to make it smaller, somehow.

When they finally got into orbit, John put the jumper on autopilot and held out his hand to Jeannie, which she took, and then they walked to the cargo bay, Jeannie opening the box on the floor while John made sure everything else was secure.  John stopped and watched as Jeannie touched her fingers to the edge of the box, smiling at the assembly of things that Rodney would have been so pissed were being floated out into space.  They were just things, but they were something.  "Bye, Mer.  See you around," Jeannie whispered, and John turned away when Jeannie wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve.  Jeannie stood up and smiled, her mouth wobbling, and left John alone.

He didn't know what to do.  He knew he should say goodbye, but he also knew that it wasn't Rodney in there.  It was just stuff, but it meant something bigger.  He didn't feel like this could be it - could be the end of someone like Rodney McKay.  It didn't seem right.

"You better not be gone for good, Rodney," he said fiercely.  "I'll kick your ass."  John turned and walked away, closing the doors behind him.

Jeannie held his hand as he opened the cargo bay doors, and he turned the jumper around, hard, so that they could watch the fabric and plastic and metal fly out, floating away toward the stars.  The ride back to Atlantis was quiet, and he gripped Jeannie's hand tightly.  When they landed, he shut the jumper down and turned to her.  "He could come back, you know.  Dr. Jackson did."

Jeannie nodded, her face streaked with red.  "I know.  If anyone can, he will."  John followed Jeannie back to her quarters, and he followed her in.  Jeannie was leaving in mere hours, and John lay down and cried, while Jeannie held him.  He cried for Atlantis, because he was terrified she wouldn't make it without Rodney's brain and his hands.  And John let himself be angry and sad at Rodney for leaving him there, leaving him without Rodney there to piss him off and make him think and pull off one miracle after another, and Jeannie let him, carding her hands through his hair.

He saw Jeannie and Carter back through the gate, and Jeannie took everything with her, every bit of weakness he couldn't dare show anyone here.  He wasn't even sure he'd ever see her again.

Elizabeth was standing there when John turned around from the empty void of the gate.  "John," she said, "are you okay?"

John was okay.  He was always okay, he always had been.  He'd survived more than this, more than once.  And it would take more than Rodney Ascending to make him not be.  "I'm good," he said tightly, walking past her, and took off for his quarters, hoping that maybe, tonight, he might be able to find sleep.

Rodney hadn't wanted to see, but he had anyway.  Each and every person saying things that they'd never said when he'd been there, which didn't seem right, and Rodney considered the cruel irony that only loss could make someone be honest, or say how they felt.  He'd turned away, tried not to know what John was saying, because he knew that John was only doing it because he'd asked.

He had always wanted to know that people cared about him, even if he should have known without them saying.  John had definitely delivered that, including Sam, who was entirely unexpected.

But, more than anything, he was pissed off.  He was angry at Atlantis and the SGC and the stupid fucking Ancients who ripped everything he'd ever wanted out of his hands before he'd had a change to really understand it and appreciate its beauty.  He wanted to go back to those people, and that place.

And the funny thing was, so very many people in the Pegasus Galaxy and even back in the Milky Way wanted to end up where Rodney was.  It was their ultimate goal - to transcend their bodies and become pure energy, and release themselves from the bonds of the physical world.  It was everything that Rodney had never wanted, and yet, he had it.  All of the knowledge in the universe was at his feet, and all he wanted was to be in the mess hall, having dinner with Ronon and Teyla and John.

Rodney knew he wasn't cut out for an existence where he couldn't make things right - where he could know everything but not fix anything at all.  It wasn't fair, and it wasn't right, and Rodney didn't want this.  None of this.  Someone else who had worked for years to have it could take it, for all he cared.

Except, when faced with the alternative, with death, Rodney would choose this, each and every time, and the thought that this ineffectual nothingness was the better option was no great consolation, but at least this way, he could still know.  And maybe, somehow, there would be some way he could help.  And it hurt like a bitch to do it, but he trained his thoughts, everything he could muster up, back on Atlantis, and he could see the city like he was high up in the jumper, spread out underneath him.

III. a little bit of your taste in my mouth

Watching Atlantis in the way he'd always imagined, as a child, that God watched down on the earth, or when he grew up and couldn't put any concrete theory to God, he imagined maybe the American government watched with surveillance cameras, was a pretty bizarre experience.  The thing was, he could look at whatever and whoever he wanted; he could zoom in on John pretending to read War and Peace, like he had been for two and a half years, in his quarters, or look out over the whole Earth or the Pegasus Galaxy.  And it made sense, every piece of it, like it never had before.

He wanted so desperately to turn all of his attention to Atlantis, like he had for years in his mortal life, and he just wanted to keep doing just that - watching out for Atlantis and helping her and making her better.  And yet, he felt like an intruder.  It wasn't that they didn't all know that Rodney was out there, and that he might be able to watch them, but it was another thing altogether to be able to see Elizabeth crying in her room, or John pacing the halls at night, or Ronon throwing things around his room, into the walls, only to pick them back up and put everything back where it was.

He couldn't watch them like that.  It just didn't seem okay, even if he wanted to know the things that watching would tell him.

Instead, he let himself see the city, because he didn't feel like he could intrude upon her, not after how intimate he had been with her for all that time.  He watched the labs during the day, which frustrated the hell out of him because everything that they were doing was so very, very wrong.  Hell, everything that he had been doing seemed wrong now, off just a little, and he wanted to fix it - fix Atlantis and make everything right - but he wanted to save the ability to do that for when they really needed him.

In order to avoid temptation (and hello, Ascended being here, he knew what was going on anyway even if he didn't see it), he started exclusively watching the labs at night, looking at the new Ancient tech that Radek and the rest were studying, and watching the blinking lights of the computers and the interfaces, and wishing himself back there.

He had thought that he could just Ascend, and then say, "thanks, for the help and the not really dying and everything, but I'd like to go back now, if you don't mind," and then poof - he'd drop Daniel Jackson-style, naked and a little forgetful, onto some planet and John would find him and bring him back, for good.

Nothing about this was that simple.  There were rules, ones that Rodney didn't care much for and didn't plan on sticking too hard to, but he couldn't just decide to go back and have that be that.  Ascension was a lot more permanent than he'd thought, and it made him ache every time he looked at toward Atlantis, or at Jeannie's house, or the SGC, and thought about how he wasn't going to get any of those things - those people - back.

Rodney was stuck like this, but he knew that the rules were just meant to be broken, in some senses.  He was waiting for his chance to help them, and to make this all worth something, even if he would rather have known nothing and been back there.

"Zatracený."  It was the first word that John heard when he sauntered into the lab.  He'd spent a lot of time in his office, clearing his desk of the paperwork that had been there for longer than John cared to admit, and when he wasn't letting Ronon or Teyla kick his ass or drag him to dinner, he spent a lot of time in the labs.

It made the scientists happy - they would stick things under John's hands for him to touch and make spin and light up, and John figured it was a damn sight better than sitting in his quarters and brooding, which was the very real alternative.

Hanging out in the labs, though, was just making John realize how much they were sorely missing Rodney, as Zelenka scrambled around and tried to figure out all of the last-minute modifications that Rodney had made to the systems, which didn't make sense to anyone.  John spent one of his sleepless nights in the lab, staring at the jumble of equations on one of the boards, trying to focus not on Rodney's sort of endearing chicken scratch but on the math.  He was pretty sure that if no one in the science department could figure out which end was up with it that John wasn't going to do much better, but Rodney had always had faith in John's intellectual ability.

This, though?  This was beyond him.  He barely understood the symbols, let alone the math.

He'd picked up enough Czech swear words to know that things weren't going well.  "What's going on?" he said to Zelenka, propping his hip against the workbench and leaning in to see what was on the computer screen.

Zelenka sighed heavily, and pushed his glasses up on his nose.  "It is not good.  I just can't - power is spiking all over city and I don't know how to undo what Rodney did.  It is very frustrating.  I'm worried we could lose ZPM power if we cannot get it under control."

"Zatracený indeed," John said back, smiling wryly, and Zelenka smiled slowly, wearily, before turning back to plunk at the keys.  "Listen, is there anything I can do?  I know I'm not on your staff, but I'd be willing to help."

Zelenka eyed him carefully, but John knew that he'd been paying attention when John sat in the labs late at night or, more likely, when he was avoiding something bureaucratic during the day, chewing on a pen and working each equation and problem Rodney sat in front of him.  He might not be a genius, but he also might be able to do something to fill the hole left by the loss of Rodney.  "Well, yes.  Here," Zelenka pushed the laptop in front of John.  "You might as well try."

Three hours later, John hadn't fixed a damn thing, but he had found holes in Wang and Cooper's equations designed to be a temporary fix of the power drain.  Which, Zelenka informed him, was not helpful at all.

"So, what are we looking at?"  John said, after giving the laptop to Zelenka and watching in fascination as he let out a string of Czech and English swear words that would rival a sailor.

Zelenka slammed the laptop shut and threw his glasses down on the top.  "Well, the best case, we lose some functionality in the city.  Some of the more luxurious things we have been enjoying.  Worst case?  We lose the shield, completely."


"Well said," Zelenka replied, with a wry grin.

The next morning's briefing was rough, with Zelenka presenting the fact that the half-completed revamping of the power systems that Rodney had been doing had failed, and no one knew how to undo it or complete it, and now they were losing power, fast.  Zelenka said that they had some plans for what sounded like a temporary, partial plug to the system, but John knew from looking at the schematics that it would only hold for a little while, and Zelenka said so.  "If we can plug up the drain, we can make the power last longer, but without a breakthrough, we will lose the shields entirely."

Elizabeth looked weary, and they all knew, with absolute certainty, that the Wraith or the Genii or the Asurans or someone would be back, and without those shields, Atlantis didn't stand a chance.

"Do what you can, Radek, and keep working on a permanent solution.  Is that all?"  Everyone nodded, and John stayed behind as everyone - Ronon, Teyla, Carson, Radek - filed out.

"We're screwed, aren't we?" Elizabeth said after a few minutes of silence.  John winced at those words coming from her mouth, but she was right.  There was no reason to sugarcoat it; it was the God's honest truth.

"Elizabeth -" he said, reaching out to grab her hand.

"God damn him."  John wasn't sure he'd heard her, because she was practically whispering, but he heard her loud and clear the second time she spoke.  "God damn Rodney for leaving us like this.  We can't do this without him."

"We can do it without him.  We don't exactly have a choice, do we?"  And he was angry, he'd been angry since Rodney left, and it had been replaced by a shocking sadness that he hadn't necessarily expected, for a little while, but most days, he wanted to kick Rodney.  Hard.

"I know.  I just keep expecting him to come in and fix everything against a ticking clock, like he always did."

John smiled.  "He fucking hated that clock."

Elizabeth's laughter rang out in the room, and it sounded so good.  One of the best things he'd heard in weeks, months.  "Yeah, he really did."

"We'll do what we can.  With any luck, and we seem to have a lot of it, things will work out."  John wanted so very much to believe that.

John Sheppard was lucky, and Rodney had always simultaneously admired that about him and hated his guts for it, but John and his luck didn't seem to be doing a damn thing for Atlantis now.  In fact, if anything, Rodney was becoming increasingly convinced that maybe he had been the lucky one, all that time, because now, they couldn't catch a break.

The "plug" in the drain worked for a week or so, and then the power drained faster than ever, and it was driving him crazy that they couldn't just fix it already.

He knew what the Ancients said, and if free will meant that Atlantis would be overrun with Wraith, then Rodney thought free will sucked.  He had no intention of letting that happen.

It turned out to be pretty easy to temporarily take a human form.  The first time he just imagined himself into the lab at 2AM, and he was there, fully formed and solid.  It was strange - to reach out and touch the keys of Zelenka's laptop, to run his hands over the new Ancient devices they'd discovered.  Honestly, his first urge was to go right to John's quarters, but he knew that was stupid.  Even though he wanted it more than anything.

It was really lousy to realize you were in love with someone when you weren't even a physical being anymore.  Made it logistically impossible.  Not to mention the fact that he was pretty damn sure, despite the fact that John was clearly having a hard time with Rodney's disappearance (which Rodney found gratifying, in a sick way), that John had no such feelings for him.

Life was unfair, human and Ascended.  Knowing everything still didn't help you to get what you wanted.

It was eerie, to be in the labs so late, even after Zelenka had finally almost dropped face-first into his coffee and given up for the night.  It was like any time he'd been here late, which was a lot, except this time, he wasn't supposed to be there.  He knew the magnitude of what he was doing, and he was pretty sure that he could get away with something small and inconspicuous.  They would know, but he suspected that they would often turn the other way if you didn't do too much, so he was betting on that, for now.  Because he wasn't sure what would happen if he really fucked up.

Once he'd logged into the laptop with Zelenka's password, fixing the code for the plug they'd been working on was easy enough.  He could have redone all of the schematics, but he thought that was going a bit overboard, so he settled for fixing the few lines of irreparably fucked up code, and spared a moment to curse Wang and Cooper's spectacularly shitty math skills.

When he was done, he clicked on the button to log off the laptop and shut it down, but before he could stop himself, he was writing one last line of code, knowing that with this, they would know exactly who had done this.

A few minutes later, he was back to floating and not being able to touch anything.  He had the sense memory of the lab beneath his hands, and it hit him so hard that, if he still needed to breathe, he wouldn't have been able to.

John didn't set an alarm on Atlantis.  It was a combination of the annoying, but convenient, internal military clock that he'd developed over the years, and the fact that he rarely got to sleep until he naturally woke up, because his radio almost always roused him.

That morning was no different.

John flipped over and grasped at his headset on the nightstand, trying to will his body into semi-alert cooperation.  "Yeah?"  God, he sounded wrecked, but that's what they got for waking him up at - what the hell time was it anyway?

"Colonel, I think you're going to want to come see this," Zelenka said, his voice faraway over the radio channel.

"Can it wait until I take a shower?" John replied, trying not to whine, but really.  Something needed to be an emergency if he was going to get up this early.

Zelenka sighed heavily.  "Yes, I suppose, but -"

"Fine, fine, be there in five."  He cut the connection and groaned as he heaved his heavy, somewhat sore limbs around to plant his feet on the floor.  Every morning had been like this for weeks now - this bone-aching exhaustion, the way his body hurt more than it ever had, which he knew he could just chalk up to age, but he was only a few weeks older than he'd been when he felt fine.  He wanted to throw the goddamn radio out the window and into the ocean, and never get out of bed at all.

The thing was, this was one of the first nights that he'd gotten in bed and stayed there, since Rodney left.  One of the first times he'd truly slept at all, and he figured he could write off his extreme pissiness at this moment to that fact.  He was exhausted and emotionally wrung out and he needed a break.  Just a little.

Instead, he stood up and pulled on the pants that he'd only taken off a few hours before, and the shirt, and after pulling on and lacing his boots and grabbing his radio, he was out the door to take the transporter to the labs.

"So, what's the emergency?"  John said as he strode into the labs.  Zelenka was peering at a monitor and looking, well - pretty flabbergasted, actually, and Elizabeth was there too.

"I just don't understand this.  I thought -" Zelenka said, and Elizabeth put her hand on his shoulder.

"John, the power drain seems to be fixed," Elizabeth said evenly.

"Great!  That's great news!  So why the hell did I need to come all the way down here for you to tell me that?"  He knew he was military commander and this was a big deal, but they had senior staff at 0900.  They could have filled him in there, or beforehand at breakfast in the mess.

"Well, that's not all.  It seems like someone came in and rewrote the code, overnight."

Huh.  Okay, that changed the story.  "Really?  Who?"

"That's what's interesting, Colonel.  It does not make sense."  Zelenka turned the laptop screen toward John, and took off his glasses, running his fingers through his hair.  John leaned in and looked at the code.

There were some algorithms that John barely understood, but his eyes quickly moved down to the last line.  There, in the code, was a line that, from what he could figure out from his limited programming knowledge, meant that when the program was running and the drain was plugged, the line "Wang and Cooper are brain-dead imbeciles" flashed on every networked computer in the city.

"Someone is messing with us," John said, looking back up at Zelenka.  "Do you really expect me to believe - "

"I know.  It is crazy, but I couldn't write these equations.  No one here could.  I think he may have left us a calling card, so to speak."

He knew that Ascended beings could make themselves physical again, for brief periods of time, like Chaya had, but he'd sort of just assumed that Rodney wasn't going to show himself again, not for a while.  And he had to admit that he was a little bit hurt that Rodney had been back to Atlantis and hadn't seen anyone, hadn't come to see him.  Just slipped into the lab in the middle of the night, fixed this, and then took off again.  Rodney sucked as much at people Ascended as he did as a mere mortal.

"It appears that Rodney decided to help us out, despite his mandate not to interfere," Elizabeth said, almost disapprovingly, like she wished that Rodney hadn't helped, and stuck to the Ascended doctrine.  Maybe she was worried about Rodney, but John thought that Rodney could probably take care of himself.

John stood back up straight, folding his arms across his chest, tightly.  "I kind of can't imagine Rodney butting out, actually."  In fact, it was really just amazing that Rodney had restrained himself for this long.  It was probably driving him nuts to watch them have a problem they couldn't figure out, and not be able to help.

Elizabeth smiled, and it felt like the first time that they'd been able to talk about Rodney and laugh about him.  "Yes, butting out was definitely not Rodney's strong suit," she said gently.

"Well, you'd think if he was going to help," Zelenka said, tapping furiously on the keyboard, "that he would have actually bothered to fix it completely."

"He didn't fix it completely?" Elizabeth said, straining forward, and they both watched while Zelenka ran through some diagnostics.

"No, it appears that the drain is simply lessened to a great degree, so that the ZPM is losing power at a rate of about 0.1% per day.  Which means, since it is only 40% charged, we have -"

"400 days," John said, which he thought wasn't too bad.  They were picking up ZPMs off-world at a faster rate than that, and it didn't seem like they should have much to worry about at all.  That was over a year.  "So we're okay."

"Not exactly," Zelenka said.  "If we have to put the shields up at all, or make more trips through the gate to Earth than we anticipate, or if any other thing happens, we are, well, how do you say..."

"Screwed."  They were sitting ducks, and it was only a matter of time before something happened.  It was always just a matter of time before everything that could go wrong went wrong, and they were at the vortex of some really shitty situation.  And they didn't have their resident scientific miracle worker to help them.  Being down to 40% power and Rodney McKay-less was not an enviable situation.

John stayed in the labs with Elizabeth and Zelenka for another hour, talking over scenarios and hypotheticals, until they were all dragging so hard that Elizabeth postponed senior staff until 1100, and sent John back to his quarters like a little kid who stayed up too late.  He hadn't been expecting to be able to sleep, and he was dreading the moment he closed his eyes and the dozens of different ways Atlantis could be destroyed would flash behind his eyes.  That was pretty much par for the course.  It had been since John had instantly, with one shot, become military commander and responsible for something and someplace that he'd never expected or wanted, but needed nonetheless.  He dreamed vividly every night, playing out every worst-case scenario over and over again, so that when he woke up and took to the hallways every morning, he could smile and pretend that he wasn't worried at all.  That morning, though, for the three hours he managed, sleep came fast and hard, and he didn't dream of Atlantis at all.

He dreamed of Rodney.  Rodney's hands taking apart some equipment in a room off the west pier, and turning to grin and snipe at John, handing him a few tools and telling him to make himself useful.  Rodney cold and scared and trapped at the bottom of the ocean.  Rodney on that stupid fucking hospital bed, dying.

John dreamed of things that never happened at all, things he hadn't realized he was thinking about.  Leaning over Rodney in the labs late at night, when they were the only ones there - the only ones awake in the whole entire city, and Rodney turning around to press his lips to John's. John waking up to the feeling of the bed dipping under Rodney's weight, and Rodney's arm slipping across his waist.  Reaching over in the mess to still Rodney's restlessly waving hand and holding it, on the top of the table.

It figured that Rodney would be long gone, or back only to tinker with the power schematics, when John finally figured this shit out.  He knew he cared about Rodney, and that he had been barely getting by over the past several weeks, walking around like somehow, if he talked to Atlantis enough, she'd figure out a way to bring him back.  And it wasn't just for the fact that they needed him, but John needed him.  Wanted him.  More than he'd had him before.

John didn't really remember how he got from his quarters to the conference room that morning, and when he got there, Elizabeth looked concerned, and Ronon and Teyla flanked him like they were protecting him from some enemy off-world.  He had to clear his head - he had to get past this, because it was fucking up his concentration and he had a job to do.  And Rodney was gone.

Rodney had taken to spending most of his time watching John.  It wasn't so much a choice (since, really, he could watch as many things as he wanted at once, and it wasn't really watching, since he wasn't corporeal, and so on), but he always ended up wanting to know what John was doing, how he was doing, and his gaze, as it was, fell accordingly.

At first, it had felt wrong, like an intrusion, and he'd been so careful to not see personal things that weren't his right to see, and he'd managed so far.  But the longer he was gone - the more the meaningless days and weeks and months stretched out ahead, never-ending - the more he needed to know.  It started with seeing John in the gym, sometimes alone, and sometimes with Teyla and/or Ronon, and he could tell by the way that they never let up on John that it was about more than keeping in shape.

The team was on stand-down, and had been since Rodney so unceremoniously left, which was flattering, but watching John run ten miles every morning and wander the halls and drive Zelenka crazy was hard to watch.  John needed something to do, somewhere to go, and Rodney knew that John wasn't sleeping, wasn't doing anything at all.

That was the hardest - at night, with John lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, John walking slowly through the city with his hands on the walls, talking too quiet for anyone to hear, but Rodney heard.  He heard every damn thing.  John's gentle entreaties to Atlantis to be kind, to help them.  John talked to Atlantis, and Rodney heard things that he had never known.  John was scared, and was afraid he was going to lose this tender, precious thing that they had all been clinging to since they stepped across the event horizon for the first time.

And John was lonely, and sad, and Rodney didn't want to believe that it was from losing him, but nothing else made sense, not really.  It didn't seem like anyone else, other than Teyla and Ronon, noticed that John was thin and pale, and that he wasn't sleeping, or eating really, for that matter.  He was bored and sad and lonely, and it was fucking breaking Rodney's incorporeal, Ascended heart.

After Rodney temporarily fixed the power drain issue and went back to being glowy and floaty, he followed John back to his quarters.  He watched John sleep, for what seemed like the first time, even though they'd shared quarters off-world countless times.  It was so gratifying to see that he found himself back that night, watching John strip down to his boxers and slide into bed again, sleep coming fast and hard.  He knew John worried, more than he ever let on, but John was sleeping soundly and still, and Rodney felt himself becoming physical again, and sitting in the chair next to John's bed.  Rodney stayed there for hours, while John clutched at his blankets and occasionally shifted on the mattress.

It was stupid, god, so fucking stupid of Rodney to stay that long, to linger and watch John like he was going to get to have this, have him somehow, but he couldn't stop, and he wanted to do it down there, as a person, not as someone who couldn't really touch.  He could pretend, if only for the time that John stayed asleep and dreaming, that this was like any other day in Atlantis.  That John wanted him to be there.

Rodney was staring at the planes of John's face, the corners of his eyes where, when awake, the signs of middle age were settling into John's perennially young face.  In sleep, he looked like the kid he acted like every time he sat behind the controls of a jumper, or when they discovered some new and ass-kicking weapon.  In sleep, John looked like he was no worse for the wear of the last years that had been new and strange and exciting and so completely and terribly hard.  In sleep, John was just John, and Rodney was absurdly grateful for that, because he wanted the people he left behind, John especially, to keep going.

Then, as Rodney was contemplating leaving, John turned to face him and whispered, "Rodney," into the quiet of the room.  Rodney froze, and he knew he should leave, right then, but he was frozen in the blink of John's eyes, the recognition of waking coming to his face.

Shit.  He should not be there.

"Rodney?" John said again, louder this time, as he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes and blinked, like he expected Rodney to be gone when he opened them again.

That day had been uneventful, and John had migrated toward his quarters and his bed faster and earlier than he had in a long time.  He figured it could be that he was chasing the deep, restful sleep he'd gotten that morning.  His body was desperate for it, craved it, after all this time of living off of coffee and a meal here and there and a few minutes of sleep a day, if it was lucky.

The truth was, he couldn't stop thinking about his dream.  About Rodney.  He'd spent all of senior staff, despite knowing that he needed to shake it off, with the imagined memory of Rodney's hands on his skin invading his mind, and it was driving him crazy.  He kept thinking, all day, that he could just show up in the labs and Rodney would be there, and he could rib him until Rodney shooed him away, just like always.

It was the first time since Rodney Ascended that John almost forgot that he was gone.  The dream was so vivid, so goddamn real, that his subconscious couldn't remember that it hadn't happened.  That he'd never once touched Rodney like that when he was still a mortal like John.  He'd never thought about it, and never had it, and wasn't that just his luck that he knew what it was like now that it was a vast impossibility.  He felt closer to Rodney than he'd ever been, for those years that he was right next door or at his shoulder off-world, and yet Rodney felt further away than the Pegasus Galaxy had seemed that first day in Antarctica, when Rodney had told him to imagine where they were in the universe.

Where he was in the universe was not with Rodney McKay, and that just sucked, plain and simple.

Sleep gathered him up quickly that night, and his dreams were once again crammed full of false memories.  Things that felt so real that if John didn't look hard enough, he'd wake up and swear they all really happened, that he'd figured this out long ago.  Rodney's mouth, soft and crooked on John's, as he pressed him against the wall in John's quarters.  Rodney showing him the schematics for a weapon that would eradicate the Wraith, grinning and making John reach out to pull him close.  Rodney's hands, strong and firm, holding John down to the bed as he slid, slick and hot and slow, into John's body, over and over again, not letting up.

John felt like some kind of psychoanalysis might be warranted, but his dreams weren't cryptic.  There was no secret language that they were speaking.  It was crystal fucking clear what they were saying, and John didn't need Heightmeyer to help him figure it out.  It could only mean one damn thing.  The one thing that John never, ever could have.

John startled awake, suddenly, and when he opened his eyes against the dark of the room, he could swear that someone was sitting in his chair, and when his eyes focused, he saw Rodney, sitting there and watching him with wide eyes.

He blinked, because he must still be asleep, but he even pinched his thigh, hard enough to gasp, before he realized that this wasn't a dream.  Rodney was sitting next to his bed, and he might need that psychoanalysis after all.

"Um, what the hell?" he said groggily, irritated, and Rodney didn't move, didn't say anything.  "What are you doing here?

"Sorry, I -" Rodney started, and the sound of his voice was not like it had been in John's dreams.  Not like he'd remembered it at all.  "I should go."

John was up and out of the bed, moving to stand in front of Rodney, who was up on his feet, grabbing his arm.  "Oh, no.  No way.  You don't get to just leave like that."  Rodney's arm was warm under John's fingers, and it felt so good.  So good for him to be solid and there, even if, on some level, it was an illusion.

"I'm not supposed to be here," Rodney said, but he didn't move away.  "I've already done enough."

John sighed and reluctantly let go of Rodney's arm, reaching out to swipe a sweatshirt off of the floor before he sat down on the end of the bed. There was just enough light from the outside lights to cast Rodney's face into half-shadow.  "Yeah.  Thanks for that, by the way.  We've got shields for a while, barring disaster, which, you know - I'm sure there will be."

"You're welcome.  Wang and Cooper are incompetent.  You could have written better code than they did," Rodney said smugly, and John smiled, because that was so good.  Rodney sniping and superior and sitting in his quarters.

"Yeah, well, I'm kind of busy being military commander and all.  I don't have time to clean up your messes."  John folded his arms over his chest and waited for Rodney to blow.

And he did, sputtering and throwing up his hands.  "My mess?  I was trying to help.  It's not my fault that I'm Ascended now and I know everything - do you know what that's like, to know everything? - and I can't do a damn thing with it.  I thought I would bend the rules a bit save your asses, but never mind.  I won't do it -"

"Chill, Rodney," John said, almost laughing, because he'd missed this.  Missed Rodney freaking out and getting defensive and worked up and ridiculous.  Only Rodney could have Ascended the human plane of existence and still manage to be a complete bitch. "We appreciate it, really.  I was just messing with you."

"Oh," Rodney said, settling back down in the chair, looking weary.  "So -"

"Yeah, um.  This is weird, huh?  The whole you're-not-really-here thing.  The creepy watching-me-sleep thing."

Rodney smiled, just a little.  "Technically, I am here, even if I'm not still a physical being, all the time.  I mean, I'm not a ghost.  I'm real."

John nodded, and before he could even think about it, he stretched his hand out to cup Rodney's face.  Rodney felt like he was there, like he was real, alive and breathing under John's hand, and he stroked his fingertips along Rodney's cheekbone, watching as Rodney let out a deep breath and closed his eyes.  "John," Rodney whispered, but John clamped his hand down over Rodney's mouth, silencing him.

"Don't, just - don't, okay?  Shut up."  John inched closer, scooting himself to the edge of the bed. He watched Rodney swallowing hard, and felt Rodney's hand come down gentle on his knee, each fingertip burning an imprint into his bare skin.  John took his hand away from Rodney's mouth.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said softly, and John titled his chin up with his hand.

"What the hell for?  What was the alternative - dying?"

"No.  I mean, yes, but - I just wish I hadn't had to do either, you know?"  Rodney sounded really sorry, and John was sorry too.  He was so sorry for the hundred different things that it wasn't even worth saying now, because there wasn't any point.  Rodney was Ascended now, and he wasn't going to just come back, and they had to figure out how to get past whatever this was and get on with their lives.

"Me too, Rodney."  John rested his hand on Rodney's shoulder and backed away, needing some air, some space to breathe.

"I'll keep helping, you know.  As much as I can," Rodney said earnestly.

"I know.  We appreciate it."

Rodney sighed.  "I really should go.  See you around?"

John had a sudden, crushing need to tell Rodney that he couldn't leave - that Rodney needed to stay and never leave, never again.  John wanted to lock Rodney in this room and never let him out, if he could.  He wanted everything that he wasn't allowed to have.

"Wait," John said, and he stood up to grab Rodney, who was on his feet and walking away like how he left was just to walk out the fucking door.  "Goddamn it."

It was easier than he thought to haul Rodney in and pull him close, and he felt like John had never imagined he would have, and John closed his eyes and leaned in and pretended that this was real, and that Rodney would pull away and smile softly and stay the night, which was the stupidest thought he'd ever had.  But Rodney did go slack in his arms and let John kiss him, and he wrapped his arms around Rodney's back and held on as Rodney's tongue slid along his.

Finally, Rodney pulled away, and they were both breathing hard, Rodney's forehead resting on John's like an Athosian greeting, except John was pretty sure that the Athosians did the forehead thing before the kissing.  John's head was swimming, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, he could figure out how to keep Rodney there if he held on tight enough.

Except then, Rodney smiled strangely and said, "Goodbye, John," and John was left with empty arms and glowing tendrils of light floating up and out of the room.

Sleep didn't come for the rest of the night, because John didn't need to close his eyes to dream about Rodney; he'd had the real thing, as much as he could.  Somehow, it wasn't much consolation, in the dark quiet of his room, the sound of the waves lapping outside, and Rodney gone.

IV. a little bit of your ghost, your witness

John knew that it was time to move on, move forward.  Outwardly, he'd been moved on for a while, but he knew it was time to really try to do it.  Rodney was his friend and he cared about him, but he couldn't fall apart over this.  There were things to do and take care of, and he had responsibilities.  He hadn't stepped off-world since Rodney left, and he knew that they needed another ZPM.  And Ronon and Teyla were being supportive, but he could tell they were getting restless, if the way they were beating each other up was any indication.

He missed Rodney, but Rodney wouldn't have wanted him to pack up and go home, in a literal or figurative sense, and he had to snap the fuck out of it and keep going.

John stopped by Elizabeth's office that morning, after a five-mile run and a shower, which at least helped him to look like he'd slept the night before.  "Elizabeth, got a minute?"

She peered up from her computer and gestured him in, before turning and smiling. "Sure, John, what's up?"

"I think the team is ready to go back into the field.  We've been grounded for three months now, and I think it's time."

Elizabeth smiled, folding her hands in front of her, on the desk, like she'd just been waiting for him.  "I think you're right.  Have you given any thought to who you might like to ask to take the science position on the team?"  John noticed that she had been careful not to say, "to take Rodney's place," even though they both knew that was what she meant.

"Yeah.  I mean, Zelenka's the obvious choice, but he flat-out turned me down.  He hates going off-world.  So I was thinking that we could ask Simpson.  I know that Rodney thought highly of her - well, as highly as Rodney thought of anyone who wasn't him, anyway."

"I think that sounds fine.  Go ahead and see if Dr. Simpson would like to join you."

Simpson was pretty excited when John finally caught up with her in the labs, the parts of some Ancient device that looked like hair dryer spread out on the table in front of her.

"Are you serious, Colonel?" Simpson said, her eyes lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning, "I mean, I just assumed that Radek would do it."

"Yeah, well," John said, poking at a spring coil in front of him.  "He turned me down, so if you want it, it's yours."

Simpson was smiling and nodding and shaking his hand vigorously.  "Yes, absolutely.  Sir."

"Oh god, you don't have to call me that, okay?"

Simpson fit in pretty well with them all, even though Ronon was having a hard time believing that Simpson had field training (more than Rodney, in fact, since she'd been with the SGC for years) and seemed to want to protect her whenever they stepped through the gate.  The first time that Simpson pointed and fired and laid out a Oralan who was about to tackle Ronon was the last time that anyone ever questioned her ability to be out there, even if she wasn't as much of a warrior as Teyla was.  Not that even John was, in most senses.

What Simpson had in the field skills department, she lacked somewhat in the miracle-working science department.  There were more close calls than John cared to have off-world, where they came through the gate hot and someone, usually John, ended up in the infirmary.

She wasn't Rodney, which was just the truth, but she was a part of the team now, and she ate dinner with them and got dropped onto her back, hard, by Ronon's swinging sticks in the gym, and no one mentioned Rodney, because there didn't seem to be much of a point to it.  They missed him, and it wasn't the same, and, yeah, Ronon and Teyla were the team and always would be, but something - someone was missing, even if no one mentioned him.

One night, after an uneventful mission to PZ5-987, where they found some interesting energy readings that turned out not to be ZPMs but rather small, furry creatures that wanted to climb up the legs of John's BDUs, John wandered out to one of the south piers.  No one else ever went because it could take an hour to get there, even by transporter, especially now that some of the systems were shut down due to the power drain.  An hour's walk was nothing to John now, not after months of walking these halls.  He didn't even have to really focus to get there - just followed his own feet, which knew the way better than he did.

"Sheppard?" John turned away from the water, startled, at the sound of Ronon's voice, and faced him and Teyla, who were standing in the doorway and looking at him.  Not with pity, or disgust, but just looking.

"Hey, guys.  What's up?" he said cheerfully.

"John," Teyla said gently, walking slowly closer.  "How are you?"  Her hand was small and warm on his shoulder, and he leaned into the touch, more than he was proud of doing.

"I'm okay," he said, and waved his arm at Ronon's raised eyebrow. "No, really, I am.  I think I am."

"Good to have you back," Ronon said, slapping John on the back hard enough to make his ears ring, but it was good not to be handled with kid gloves, like he was some grieving war widow, which he most certainly was not.

The three of them sat on the pier, legs dangling, and Ronon talked about training Marines in hand-to-hand, and Teyla talked about two new babies that were born to the Athosians in the last month, which was a great joy for them.  John let them carry him along, hold him up, and for the first time, he thought he might not be lying to Ronon when he said that he was okay.

Helping Atlantis, it turned out, had a price.  He felt like he was back in grade three and he'd corrected his teacher about her explanation of planets in class, and he was wondering, were his parents were still alive, if the Ancients would threaten to call them like she had.  He knew that it was very much against the rules to help out the mortals, interfere at all, free will blah blah, but he'd thought that maybe they wouldn't really know.  They pretty much left him alone, after all.

Then he remembered the all-knowing thing, and it all made sense.  They didn't have to be paying attention.  They knew what Rodney did no matter what.

Rodney wanted to keep helping - he hated just standing by and watching them struggle and suffer because of it.  He never thought that he'd say he was like Daniel Jackson, but from what he knew from being around the SGC while Jackson was Ascended, he too had had a hard time keeping his hands off, so to speak. He'd finally been kicked out of the glowy ranks for it.

Rodney didn't know if he wanted that.  It was like knowing everything made him not want to know it anymore, which didn't make any damn sense at all.  He'd spent his whole life trying to know, but he'd give it up in a heartbeat now if he could.  He knew that just like he knew how to calculate the power charge of a ZPM, like he understood string theory.  He knew that he wanted everything to be back the way it was, and it was never going to be.

He did figure out, though, that they would pretty much let him do little things, as long as he didn't do anything that really called attention to himself or altered the fates of people in a major way, they would chide him and, ultimately, let it slide.  He knew they all did it - it was nearly impossible to get to this enlightened place and pretend that you didn't care about those people you left behind.

Every Ascended being had left something behind, someone behind that they cared about. Even if their goal in life was to be here, to be like this, all-knowing and at peace and pure, seamless energy, the physical plane was still there.  Rodney had never been able to ignore it, and he didn't think that any of the others could either, even after a while of pretending that they didn't care about those people and things anymore.  That they could just leave it all behind and move on to something bigger and better, and be okay with people suffering and dying.

Rodney had never, not for one minute, been able to turn away, not completely.  And it was strange, because he'd gone through his whole life never really connecting with people, or letting himself care.  He'd spent years not speaking to his sister over something which was, in retrospect, completely ridiculous, and not worth all the time he lost with her and with her family.  They should have been allies after the great war of their childhoods, but instead, he fucked it all up by caring whether or not she had physics or babies, and let her get lost, for all that time.  Atlantis was the first time that he'd let himself be open, be vulnerable to people, and it was the best and worst thing he'd ever done.  They were his family, more than anyone had ever been, and even when they were stupid or he was annoying them, they cared.  And yet, he always thought he could just leave something, and that would be it, but leaving Atlantis was nothing like that at all.  It was like ripping a bandage off, over and over again, and it hurt so much.

Maybe this was what it was like to contemplate your existence.  What it was all about.

And maybe this was why people spent their entire lives preparing to Ascend, because there was so much to get over and make peace with to be able to really do this, to abide by all of the rules that they were supposed to abide by, without fucking it up.  He would have needed another whole lifetime to be able to not want to be back there, every single second.  Not to miss them.  God, not to miss John.

Now Rodney knew why some Ascended were angry at Oma for helping people take shortcuts to this place.  Because those who took their time, who really understood what they were losing by gaining this, were probably the happiest.

Rodney wasn't happy.  He had this immortal, omniscient existence, and he wanted to hand it back and get on with his life.  He was completely stuck, and knew this was for the best, even if it didn't feel that way, most of the time.  He pushed away all the memories of the way John had felt, how warm and soft and perfect the kiss had been, how he'd held on like he, too, knew what the stakes were.  Like he didn't want this either.  Like he didn't understand why they couldn't have figured this out before it was impossible.

He resolved to lay low, do what he could, but he was on the list now, and they would be paying attention for sure, making sure he stayed in line, stayed with the program, didn't break the rules.  He was straddling two worlds and two sets of right and wrong, and he couldn't tip too far in either balance and upset the equilibrium.  Ascension had kept him from losing this life all together, and he wasn't too stupid to give it up willingly.

The team was going off-world a lot, out of necessity, and John wouldn't admit it, but part of him needed to be away from Atlantis and doing something, otherwise he'd go insane.  Even if every time they stepped through the gate, he missed Rodney like a limb.  Every time.

Simpson was good, though, agreeable and competent, with just enough of an edge to keep them all on their toes and Ronon in line.  She was a good fit, and her miracle-to-ass-kicking ratio was improving everyday, so he had no more complaints.  None at all, except that he hadn't seen or heard from Rodney since that night, in his quarters, and he hated that he sort of wanted something to go wrong so that Rodney would have to come back and fix it.  So John would know he was out there.

The team - Simpson geared up with a hat on backward, smiling like going through the gate was the best thing ever, because, to her, it always was; Ronon, tucking the last of his knives into his hair and grinning at Simpson; Teyla standing close to John and telling him what she knew of the people on this planet - was ready to go.  It was a routine first contact mission to PR9-350.  Teyla said that they used to be trading partners of the Athosians, several generations before, and she had every reason to believe that their level of technology might be a promise of a ZPM or some other power source.  John knew from checking in with Zelenka that morning that they were down to 24%, after a minor issue with some Ancient equipment in the east sector of the city, and one activation of the shields, for a short period of time, would eat the rest of that completely.  All the teams were out on missions almost constantly, following every energy signature and hoping, just needing to get lucky one time.

John hoped PR9-350 was their lucky break, because it was only a matter of time before Atlantis was, literally, dead in the water.

Elizabeth gave them the go-ahead, and they stepped through the gate, John bringing up the rear of the group, Ronon out front.  PR9-350, or Karacia, as Teyla called it, was a rainforest jungle-type planet, and John felt completely overdressed in his BDUs against the heavy, wet air pressing down on them.

"Okay, folks.  Simpson, getting anything?"

Simpson looked down at her life signs detector.  "Yes, Colonel, I think - about a mile to the east, there's some interesting energy activity."

"Excellent.  Let's check it out then."  The four of them moved forward, Ronon hacking a path for them through the dense foliage.  John was sweating hard, feeling it slide down his spine and down the crack of his ass, and damn, that was unpleasant, but he couldn't exactly stop to change his clothes.  Simpson was wiping her hand on her forehead, and Teyla and Ronon looked hot as hell too, slick with sweat, even though they didn't look like they were going to complain about it.

"The Karacian city is right where Dr. Simpson is getting the energy reading, John.  I imagine it is coming from inside the city somewhere," Teyla said calmly, not even out of breath after traipsing through a mile of dense plants and ridiculous heat.  John felt like he was melting.

"And the Karacians are friendly, right?" John said, emerging from behind a large palm-like tree and seeing the tops of buildings over the next batch of trees.

"Yes, according to my father, but no one has been in contact with them for most of my lifetime.  My father and others used to trade with them quite regularly, though."

"Great," he said, wishing they had intel from less than thirty years ago, but it was better than nothing.

Simpson moved out in front of them, Ronon right behind her.  "Colonel," she called out.  "We're about halfway there."  And sure enough, a few minutes later, they emerged from the jungle and stepped into the city.

It was completely empty.  Deserted.  "Perhaps they were culled," Teyla said softly, like a prayer.  "It does not appear that there is anyone left."  The city was large, the buildings taller, and Simpson was talking softly about how they must have been technologically advanced to build buildings like this, and there was no evidence of the stone or metal alloys they were made of being present in the jungle, and so they must have brought things through the gate.

"Hot or cold?" John said to Simpson, and she pointed to the right.

"There," she said.  "About a hundred feet."

They turned the corner, and John almost gasped, because there was a fucking ZPM, just sitting there, on a goddamn pedestal like it was waiting for them to just come and pick it up.  "Holy shit."

"Damn right," Ronon said, holstering his gun and moving forward, approaching the ZPM tentatively, like it was going to just disappear if they got too close, if they just reached out and took it.

Ronon looked back, and John waved him on.  "Go ahead.  Grab it and let's get the hell out of here.  It's not like the Karacians need it - they're long gone."  Teyla nodded, too.  Ronon took the step forward, and brought his hand down on the ZPM.

The shots started ringing out before Ronon could grasp it, and Simpson was dropping the reader and unholstering her gun.  "John!" Teyla shouted, and then, well over a dozen people, wearing what looked like black rags, came around the corner.

"Damn it," he muttered, and there wasn't enough time to get the ZPM and go.  There wasn't enough time for anything other than running, and John hoped they could follow the trail that Ronon had cut through the jungle to get back to the gate fast.

John turned and took a few shots at the men, managing to get a couple of them down.  "Take cover!" he shouted, hitting the ground and rolling behind a tree, watching while the others scrambled to do the same.  He turned to reload his gun, and then, he heard the sickening sound of someone being shot.  A high-pitched cry, the weight of a body hitting the dirt.  When he came out from behind the tree, he saw Ronon dragging Simpson, who was limp and bleeding, toward John.  God damn it.  Fuck.  "Fall back to the gate," he said into his radio, and then they were running, Teyla and John turning to fire back at the approaching band, Ronon hauling Simpson up into his arms.

The mile back to the gate felt like ten, blinded by the flashing green of the palm fronds in front of their faces, John's heart beating, hoping that the bullet hadn't hit anything vital, that Simpson wasn't losing too much blood, that they could get through the gate in time.

Finally, they came through the clearing and John, gratefully, heard Simpson making small, pained noises, which meant that she was still conscious.  Not dead, not dead.  "Dial it, Teyla, I'll cover you," John spat, taking down one, two, three more - god, they looked like fucking ninjas or something.

Teyla pounded out the address to Atlantis, and Ronon was ripping off a piece of his shirt to press to onto the seeping wound on Simpson's chest.  From a cursory glance, Simpson was pale and in and out of consciousness.  Okay.  He fired a few more shots, and Ronon and Teyla were firing too, and there were less of them, but still too many.  Way too many.

"Come on," Teyla was saying to Ronon, and that's when John noticed that the event horizon was there, glittering and blue and promising safety on the other side.  Ronon went first, and John breathed a sigh of relief that Simpson was mere seconds away from Carson and the medical help she needed.

"Elizabeth," he called into his radio as Teyla stepped through.  "We're coming in hot."

A second later, the searing pain startled him, and he almost lost his footing and stumbled right before he managed to get through the gate. He'd been shot enough times to know what it felt like.  The disconcerting feeling of flesh tearing, the way his muscles seized up, the trickle of blood down the back of his knee, soaking his pants.  A wave of nausea passed over him, but he dragged himself into the event horizon and through the wormhole, sprawling out on the ramp in the gate room to avoid more shots before Elizabeth shouted to shut down the connection and put up the shields.  The room was only filled with the sound of Carson and his team taking Simpson to the infirmary, Teyla following.

John just lay there, breathing hard, his head swimming with pain and fury.  "Sheppard," Ronon said, his big hands reaching out to tug John up to his feet.  "Shit, you're hit."

"It's okay," John said, trying to grin.  "Just a scratch, really."  Except it was more than that, he knew that too.

"Sure," Ronon said, and wrapped his arm around John's shoulders, holding him up, which was probably for the best.  Because that was the last thing John remembered before he passed out.

John.  God.  Rodney had been so close.  He saw Ronon reaching for that ZPM, and he just felt something off in the air, he knew what was coming, and then sure enough, the cloaked crazy people with guns had come out shooting and fucking shot Simpson in the chest and he'd wanted to somehow reach down and pluck each and every one of them out of there, like pieces off of a game board.  But he couldn't.  It wouldn't be something that could be forgiven.

And then John had gotten a bullet through his leg, and there wasn't even anything Rodney could do, even if he wanted to interfere.  To save him.  Maybe, if he'd been there, he could have done something.  Made John go through first.

Everything was so fucked up, and he was pretty sure John was okay, but the sight of his blood and the way he stumbled when he was hit was like a stab in the gut.  Rodney could still feel that, even without a body.  John was supposed to be the strong one, and he couldn't die, because then this all might be for nothing, and that was just too depressing to face.

If he could have, he would have kept a bedside vigil, but as it was, he did the best he could from where he was, and waited for John to get better.

John opened his eyes, everything soft and out of focus, the quiet hum of Ancient medical monitors in the background.  It took him a few seconds to figure out where he was (infirmary) and why (shot in the leg, and that still fucking hurt) and what had happened (fuck, Simpson, was she okay?  where was she?), and then he was struggling to swing his legs over the edge of the bed.

"Whoa," Ronon said, and John hadn't even known he was there, but he was, sitting next to John's bed, looking like he was ready to attack.  "Lie down."

"Simpson," John said, and was that his voice?  Because he sounded like shit.  "Is she -"

Ronon stood up, pressing John down gently but with all of his power behind the move, on John's shoulder, until John had no choice but to land flat on his back on the bed again.  Truth was, he was kind of tired, and his leg hurt like hell.  "Relax.  Beckett's working on her now.  They haven't finished yet, but he said he's pretty sure we got her back in time."

John closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out and feeling his panic start to subside.  Simpson was going to be okay.  Carson was working on it.  His leg hurt, but not like it did when he came through the gate, so that was good.

"It was a through-and-through," Ronon said, standing next to the bed, his hand on top of the blankets next to John's thigh.  "Beckett said you should be back to regular duty in a week or two.  He'll probably let you out of here today."

"Good."  John blinked his eyes open, and Ronon was smiling down at him, that child-like grin that he sometimes got, when Teyla came by to check in.

After that, it was a whirlwind.  Teyla was apologizing for having bad intelligence on the Karacians, which wasn't her fault, it wasn't like she could have known, when Carson came in and said that they'd gotten the bullet out, and that Simpson would be okay after some time and a whole lot of rest.  Then, he discharged John with a bottle of Tylenol 3 and orders to "not do anything, and I mean it, Colonel."  John nodded, because he didn't feel much like doing anything anyway.

He felt like going back to his quarters and sleeping for a week, before dragging his ass back here to see Simpson, and confirm that she was okay with her own eyes.

John was trying hard not to think about the ZPM that had been right there, and how much they'd needed it.  It was pointless now, and there was no way that they were going to be able to go back to Karacia to get it.

Ronon trailed him the whole way back to his quarters, even though he had the standard-issue crutches that Carson had given him and didn't really need any help.  "What?" he said, irritated, as he balanced on the crutches to swipe his hand over the sensor, the door sliding open soundlessly.

"Nothing," Ronon said, and then followed John into his quarters.

John sighed, feeling weary, and missing Rodney flailing around and fussing over him like he always did when John got injured.  He felt emptied out, hollow, and he just wanted to rest.  "Listen, Ronon, I don't know what you want, but I can't do this right now."  He leaned the crutches up against the wall and hopped until he was sitting on the edge of his bed.

"I don't want anything from you, Sheppard."  Ronon said it like he meant it, but he was moving toward John, with purpose, and John blamed the fuzzy feeling in his head on the pain.

"Um.  Then I'm just going to go to sleep, okay?"

Ronon was standing in front of him, looking down for a second before he knelt down in front of John, all long limbs and grace and John swallowed, hard, as Ronon's hands came down gently on John's thighs.  "John," Ronon said, his voice a low growl, nothing more.  "Let me tend you."

Christ.  "Ronon," John said, clasping Ronon's hands to push them away.  "No way, okay?  Just - I'm okay.  I'm fine.  I just need to sleep."

Ronon just stayed there, looking hard at John, not moving away, nothing.  "I know you miss him.  I know what he was to you.  You need someone, I can tell."

"Ronon," John said warningly, but, at the same time, he was loosening up his hands, letting go of Ronon's wrists.  He didn't want to need this.  He wanted to be able to be strong enough to send Ronon away, but Ronon, god, he was right.  "I don't -"

Ronon's hands on the waistband of his pants interrupted him.  Ronon shushed him, and the pain, inside and outside, everything, was fading to the background as Ronon bent his head to mouth at John's cock through his boxers.  "Please," John pleaded, and he was rewarded with the cool rush of Lantean air on his warm skin, and the hot, wet tightness of Ronon's mouth, taking him in.  He let himself tangle his fingers in the haphazardness of Ronon's hair, and he absolutely wasn't thinking about Atlantis being attacked, the sound of Simpson hitting the dirt, the stinging shock of the shot through the back of his thigh, Rodney's mouth soft and warm against his.  He wasn't thinking about Rodney at all as he held on tight and came, gasping into the quiet, shooting over and over again into Ronon's mouth.  Ronon stayed with him, not backing off, and John felt like his bones had disappeared, and he wanted to melt into the bed forever and forget all of this.

He didn't know how long it was before the world righted itself, but he was stripped down to his boxers and in bed, Ronon wrapped around him like a blanket, careful to not touch his thigh, and John fell into absolutely dreamless sleep for the first time, maybe ever.

Rodney had been worried sick about John, terrified, even though he knew that he was okay and that he was going to be fine.  He got himself so worked up that he finally had to tune out, as much as he could, because it was driving him crazy, and he couldn't do anything about it, so there wasn't any damn point.

Finally, he decided to go to John.  Assume corporeal form and go to him and offer him some comfort, because, while that was still a violation, just to be seen, he knew that it was pretty much overlooked in the Ascended circles Rodney ran in.  They didn't like interference in a concrete way, but they seemed to look the other way when you wanted to go say hi.

There was no way Rodney could have prepared himself for what he saw when he got to John's room.  John was there, and, miraculously, sleeping, but he was also in the arms of six and a half feet of Ronon Dex, who was also asleep, his hair spread out on John's pillow.  He knew he shouldn't be mad, he had no right, and still - he wanted to kick Ronon's ass, which he could probably do now.

Instead, he waited.  Sat in the same chair he'd sat in the last time and waited for John (or Ronon) to wake up.  He was thinking about everything and nothing as he sat there.  How scared he'd been for John that day, how much he'd wanted to be able to keep that all from happening.  Except when he'd tuned out, he'd apparently missed John deciding to take some comfort elsewhere.

Rodney was so angry he couldn't see straight, and he didn't know why he begrudged John this comfort, this solace in another person.  Did he expect John to wait forever, like some kind of demented martyr to the cause of Rodney McKay?  He wanted John to be happy, and maybe Ronon made him happy.  Maybe this was what John needed, and Rodney couldn't deny him that.

Hours passed.  The soft, morning Atlantis light came up through John's window, blurred by the gauzy curtains, and Rodney just stayed, just sat and waited, until John's green eyes were open and wide, staring at Rodney.

"Good morning," Rodney said softly.

"Rodney, what are you doing?"  John said, anger spilling out in his hushed voice.  "You can't just -"

"I'm sorry.  I was worried about you, and I thought you might need some company."  Rodney laughed - a bitter, unnatural sound that hurt his own ears.  "I guess I was, uh, wrong.  Or too late."

"Rodney, look -" John was sitting up slowly, the sheet pooling around his waist, and Ronon made a soft noise and rolled over, burying his face in the pillow.  For someone who was on high alert all the time, Ronon was a sound sleeper.

"No, don't.  You don't have to apologize to me, John.  It's okay."

John rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands, running his fingers through his hair until it was even more ridiculous than it had been when he first got up.  "It's not okay.  Nothing is okay, okay?" John gestured toward Ronon, who was shifting like he was about to be up too, and about to make this whole thing a lot more awkward.  "He's my friend.  He thought I needed some tending."

Rodney laughed again, but it was more real this time.  "He was probably right.  You are crap at taking care of yourself, especially when I'm not around to save your ass."

"Yeah," John said, smiling slightly, and that's when Rodney realized that Ronon was awake and staring at them.

"Hey, McKay," Ronon said, like it was totally normal for someone who was Ascended to just be sitting in John's room at dawn, after Ronon and John had had sex.

"Ronon," Rodney said.  "Listen -"

"Say no more," Ronon said, getting up to his feet and pulling his shirt on in one fluid move.  "See you around, Sheppard.  McKay."  And with a nod of his head, Ronon was gone, the sliding door shutting behind his back, and Rodney and John were alone.

They sat there for a few minutes, John blinking like he was still trying to wake up fully.  Like he was still trying to totally understand what was happening, and Rodney was trying to decide what to do.  Because part of him knew that he shouldn't do this anymore.  John had the right to get on with his life and sleep with whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and Rodney couldn't tell him otherwise.  He couldn't stand to know that John was just waiting for him, holding himself back, not sleeping or eating or taking care of himself.  Just wasting away.  It was stupid, and Rodney wouldn't have it.

So, he made a decision.  One that he would have to live with, for the rest of eternity, but the best one.  Rodney stood up and walked over to John, sitting down next to him on the bed and nudging him carefully until they were both lying down, facing one another.  "Hey," Rodney said quietly, running his fingers over John's face, into John's hair.  It was crazy that he could have this, still, but he knew that it couldn't be more than this.

"What are you doing?"  John's hand came up to rest on Rodney's hip, his fingers slipping underneath the bottom seam of Rodney's t-shirt, and it felt so good to be touched like that.  He'd resigned himself to never having that, ever again, and it shocked him with how indulgent it felt.  Just that tiny bit of skin on skin.

Rodney leaned into the touch, shifting so that his thigh fit between John's legs.  "I think you know," Rodney replied, and leaned forward to kiss John, pressing their lips together and ending the conversation.

What was there to say, really?  Rodney moved in closer, feeling John getting hard against his leg, pushing up into the touch, and Rodney maneuvered John onto his back and rocked into it.  John's breath was coming fast and harsh into Rodney's ear, so good, sending goose bumps down Rodney's arms, and it was perfect.  It was like a benediction, and that seemed fitting, because it was also the end.  He knew it, and John knew it, from the way he was frantically flailing at the button and zipper on Rodney's pants, and it only took a few more seconds before Rodney moved to help him.

The first touch of John's cock on his exploded his brain, and he had to remind himself to take it slow, to savor it.  John's hands were on his back, gently stroking up and down the line of his spine underneath his t-shirt, and Rodney turned his face in to mouth at John's neck, to hear John's softly whispered words against his skin.  John was trying to tell him something - something that sounded like I love you and don't leave and everything else that was impossible for Rodney to give him, and John knew that.

But Rodney was going to give John this.

"So good," John said, gasping, as Rodney's hand wrapped around them both, moving in a slow, steady, easy rhythm, but they were close, he knew it, as much as he didn't want it to be over.  It was only a few more seconds before John was saying Rodney's name softly and sighing as he came, all over Rodney's wrist and his cock and their stomachs.  Rodney followed just a second later, pushing over and over again against that slick, smooth skin, which felt like it held all the answers that Rodney craved, and that he couldn't have.

After Rodney caught his breath, he rolled them over so that they were facing each other, John's hands still anchored on Rodney's hips.  Rodney knew that the longer he stayed, the worse this would be.  "John," he whispered.  "I have to go."

John sighed and opened his eyes, and Rodney almost looked away, because John looked devastated, but resolute.  "I know," he said.  "I know you do."

"I can't come back," Rodney said hurriedly, trying to get it out before he couldn't anymore.  "I've already broken so many rules, and it's not okay.  This isn't okay."

"I know, Rodney.  I get it."

Rodney wanted to shout at him, to tell him to stop being so goddamn understanding about the fact that Rodney was leaving, for good, and they wouldn't see each other again.  And forever might be a concept that Rodney understood the shape of, but he was certain that John didn't really get it.  What that truly meant.  "Stop it."

"Stop what?" John said, backing away a little, his eyes wide.

"Stop making this easier."

John looked at him, his eyes betraying, just for a second, how hard this was, how heavy the weight of all of this was on his shoulders.  "No point in making it harder, right?  Now get the hell out of here." John pushed at Rodney's shoulder half-heartedly.

"Take care of yourself, okay?  Try not to die or anything, as much as you can."  Because John Sheppard would probably try to die a hundred more times before he actually did, if Rodney knew him as well as he thought he did.

"I'll do my best.  Now, go be glowy.  We'll be okay.  I'll be okay, I promise."

Rodney nodded and leaned in, one last kiss.  One last thing he'd get from Atlantis before he had to say goodbye.  For his own good, and for theirs.  John didn't clutch him, didn't hold on like he couldn't stand to let go, just kissed Rodney and then smiled sadly when it was over.  "Later," he said, and that was the last thing that Rodney saw before he pulled his self and mind away from Atlantis, for good.

V. a little bit of your words I long to hear

John spent his two weeks of Carson-imposed down time in the infirmary, at Simpson's bedside.  She'd come out of surgery okay, and had been conscious for a few minutes, but mostly she slept.  She looked like shit - deathly pale, and tubes coming out everywhere, and wires hooking her up to a million different machines and scanners.  He hated seeing her like that, because she looked too much like death, even though Carson told him that she was going to be fine.  That she was recovering as fast as could be expected. So, he put his bad leg up on her bed, watched her, and willed her to be well.

A week later, she was up more than not, and John brought her laptop and a deck of cards, and felt himself flush every time she laughed at his stupid fucking jokes, because it made him realize, with a sharp, almost painful clarity, how close he came to losing another team member.  Ronon and Teyla came too, and sometimes they were all there, playing some ridiculous game that Ronon and Teyla swore was traditional for many Pegasus Galaxy cultures - some bizarre mix of poker and jacks that required you to spend a lot of time looking like a total idiot - but John was sure they'd made it up to embarrass John and Simpson.

After four weeks, Simpson got a clean bill of health and two more weeks of PT before Carson would evaluate her for mission readiness.  Before they could go back out there and try not to get her shot again.

After that, life went on, which was almost surprising.  The weeks gave way to months, slow like the way the stars moved in the Lantean sky, and John kept expecting Rodney just to appear in his room again - to say that he wasn't serious.  That he didn't have to stay away.  That they could keep doing whatever this was that they were doing, this slow, arrhythmic dance around each other that had John reeling half the time, when he wasn't craving it.

Except he didn't come back.  The ZPM continued to drain, steadily, and every trip into the labs brought him face-to-face with an exhausted and grim Zelenka, who didn't even bother to say anything anymore.  He just shook his head when John opened his mouth to ask if they'd made any progress, and John didn't press any further.  He knew better than that.

So they were sitting ducks.  Which was par for the course, really, at this point, but as military commander, it was supposed to worry him that they only had enough ZPM power left to either dial Earth or put up the shield, neither of which he wanted to have to do anytime soon.  But it was only a matter of time, and he and Elizabeth would have to make the decision about what to do.

John really, really missed Rodney.  For more than one reason.

He was sleeping again, which was something, but he woke up every morning feeling like he'd barely slept.  His dreams were full of Rodney, except now, John knew what Rodney's skin felt like and how he kissed and what it was like to have Rodney's mouth on his neck.  It wasn't a fantasy; it was just a relentless repeat of what John had had, just for a moment.

It was always an option to start roaming the halls again, but he had nothing to say to Atlantis anymore.  Nothing left to say at all that hadn't already been said, that she didn't already know.  John wanted Rodney back, really back, none of this materializing in John's quarters for sex and then disappearing forever.  He wanted Atlantis safe and secure and ready for anything.  There was nothing she could do, and frankly, there was nothing any of them could do except hope for the best.

So he went on, made himself get in bed every night and drag himself out every morning.  Walk from meetings to paperwork to sparring sessions to fruitless off-world missions that just pissed him off, even if they managed to find other things to trade for.  And it was okay, even if it wasn't good.  He'd told Rodney that it would be okay, that John would be okay so that he didn't have to worry, and John needed to be able to do that.  So that Rodney didn't have to make the choice of breaking the rules and facing the uncertain consequences for him.

John was pretty used to the pre-0500 radio wake-up calls at this point, but he wasn't used to hearing Elizabeth's voice on the channel, asking him to come to the control room immediately, with that kind of scary diplomat-patented calm that meant that something was really, really fucking wrong but she was doing her best not to freak out over the radio.

"Give me one minute," John said briskly as he pulled on his pants and a t-shirt, and he made it to the control room in record time.

"John," Elizabeth said, and whoa, just looking at her face he knew this was not good.  She and Zelenka were staring at the radar screen, where at least ten dots were encroaching upon Atlantis.  "We have a bit of a problem."


Zelenka was unblinking, and it was hard to tell that the dots were getting closer or moving at all unless you looked really closely, but they definitely were.  Slowly, infinitesimally.

"Are those what I think they are?" John said, and Zelenka just nodded, eyes never leaving the screen.

"Ten hive ships," Zelenka said softly, calmly too.  It was like they all knew that this was beyond the worst-case scenario.

"How long?"

"Three, maybe four days.  Three to be on the safe side."

Elizabeth sighed.  "Okay.  How much do we have left on the ZPM?"

Zelenka tore his eyes away from watching the hive ships, creeping closer, to pull up a couple of diagnostic screens on his laptop.  "Eight percent," he said.  "Enough to dial the gate once, or put the shields up for a couple of hours."

"So, basically," John said, knowing he was stating the obvious, but someone had to say it out loud, "we can either evacuate Atlantis or put up the shields and hope they hold long enough to fend them off."

"Yes, but the likelihood that the Wraith wouldn't wait us out is very small," Zelenka said.  "They've shown themselves to be very persistent in the past."

Elizabeth dropped down onto one of the chairs, slumping forward, and John had never seen her look like that.  Defeated, completely, because she knew that there was no way out of this one.  "Do we have any options at all?" she said wearily, and Zelenka just shook his head.

"No, I do not think so."

John wanted to scream, because they'd fought the Wraith before and won, but the Daedalus wasn't due to arrive for over a week, and they'd even taken some of the jumpers offline, hoping that they could conserve some power by not having to charge them.  He knew better than anyone what they had left to fight with, and it wasn't going to be enough.  He wanted to believe that they would come out ahead on this one too, but he had no answers.  Nothing.

"All right," Elizabeth said, straightening up and getting to her feet.  Putting herself back together again.  "The SGC is dialing in at 0800.  I'll have to speak to General Landry then.  John, would you join me?"

"Incoming wormhole.  General Landry's IDC, ma'am."

"Lower the shield," Elizabeth said, back to the consummate diplomat, and John stood beside her, resisting the urge to reach out and steady her with his hand on her back.

Landry's face appeared on the screen.  "Dr. Weir," he said.

"General," Elizabeth said.  "If you don't mind, I'm going to skip the preliminaries.  We're in a bit of a situation here."  She told him everything - about the ZPM, the hive ships, the shields.  How they didn't have a plan, and didn't have the power to come up with one.

"Well," Landry said, hesitantly, like he knew how much this was worth to all of them, "I have to consult with the IOA, but I think you should prepare your people to evacuate."

It was one thing knowing it, and another thing to hear it, and John wanted to protest.  It was right there, on his tongue, telling them he'd figure out a way to fly up there and blow them all to hell.  They'd get a ZPM in the next day.  Whatever it took.  But they were out of options, for real this time, and he just watched Elizabeth nod and say she understood, that she'd make the announcement immediately and that she and John would start preparing the inhabitants to gate out in two days' time.  1300.  Landry nodded and said he'd be in touch.

"And for what it's worth, Dr. Weir - I'm sorry," Landry said.

Elizabeth's mouth was a tense line, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest.  "Me too, General."

And then the screen went blank.  Elizabeth turned to John, and he had the urge to hug her, wrap her up in his arms and hold her, because she looked close to collapsing.  "John, can you radio Teyla and Ronon?  I want them to hear this from us before I make a city-wide announcement."  Teyla would choose to stay, and Ronon would likely stay with her and the Athosians on the mainland.  It was like the last time they left, which wasn't that long ago.  Being forced by circumstance to evacuate their home and go back to a life on Earth that none of them could even make sense of anymore.  John remembered well the drifting feeling of being on Earth again.  And he was the only one of the senior staff who got to go off-world when they were back there.  He remembered the phone calls, almost every day, to and from Rodney, when they talked about nothing and everything and mostly about how they didn't know how to do this - real life, on Earth - anymore, especially without each other.

He would make it.  They would all make it, even though, at least the last time, they'd known the city was okay, even if they weren't there to protect her.  This time, they were leaving her to be destroyed, and that was breaking John's heart more than anything else.

Teyla and Ronon came to Elizabeth's office, and they all sat down while Elizabeth explained the situation - telling them that, like the last time, they were welcome to come back to Earth with the rest of the expedition, and that the SGC would find a suitable place for them when they got there.  They just took it all in.  Teyla sat with her hands on thighs, nodding as they talked about shutting down the systems and evacuating in two days' time, and John could see that the skin on her fingertips was white from holding on.

Ronon was still, more still than John had ever seen him, but he looked like he was on the edge of jumping up and going after all ten hive ships himself.

"Thank you," Teyla said, leaning back and folding her hands over her stomach, "but you know I cannot leave, Elizabeth."

"We figured as much," John said grimly.

"I'm staying, too.  The Wraith aren't all dead yet." Ronon growled, low and barely audible as Teyla reached over to grasp his arm.  He tried to shrug her off, but she held on tight.

"Guys," John started, trailing off, because he had no idea what he was going to say.  Not one clue.  He couldn't say anything that would change what was happening.  They were staying - these two members of his goddamn family - and this time, he definitely wouldn't see them again.  He knew that in his gut, deep down, in the same place where he knew that Atlantis was home.  "This sucks," he said finally.  The room was silent, no one looking at each other, for a few long, awful moments.

"It was an honor and a pleasure to work with all of you," Teyla said softly, "and you will not be forgotten."  Ronon jumped up and stalked out of the room, not looking back, and Teyla sighed heavily.  "He has had to say goodbye far too many times in his life."

With that, Teyla stood up and left, clasping John's shoulder hard enough to sting on her way out.

"Well, that went as expected," Elizabeth said from behind her desk.  John looked at her, and she had that look on her face,  her patented let's-pretend-everything-is-fine-when-it's-totally-fucked-up look.  They weren't going to get out of this one.  They weren't going to find a ZPM and the Wraith weren't going to disappear.  Elizabeth looked like she wanted to collapse, to let go and rage at the world for how unfair this was, and John couldn't blame her, because he'd been biting back a scream too.  "Okay, I'm going to make an announcement.  You should probably go start prepping the military contingent."

John was frozen.  He had things to do; he needed to get moving if they were going to make their appointment with the SGC in two days.  He also knew, even though Landry hadn't said explicitly that they'd send a nuke through the gate after everyone was through, that they most likely would.  Standard SGC practice.  He had to say goodbye to the city, too, and that was breaking his heart slowly into a million tiny shards.  He was losing everything and everyone — Teyla, Ronon, Rodney.  Atlantis.

"Elizabeth - " he started, but he couldn't remember what he was going to say.  Instead, he walked over behind her chair and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.  He could feel her cold and shaking, but she was quiet.  John stayed there until he felt her shift and heard her take a deep breath.  He let her go and straightened up, smoothing his hands down the front of his t-shirt.  "It's going to be okay."  The lie sounded hollow and awful to his own ears, and Elizabeth just nodded while John turned and slipped from the room.

This was a special brand of torture.  Rodney couldn't understand how anyone would want this.  Despite forcibly turning his immortal gaze from Atlantis, turning from John, the knowledge that the Wraith were returning - that they'd discovered Atlantis and were coming for them - hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks.  All ten hive ships on a direct collision course and he wasn't supposed to do a damn thing.  It didn't make sense to know all of this and then not use it to help the people you cared about, your goddamn family.

Instead, he was supposed to sit idly by and watch while they all fled Atlantis with their tails between their collective legs and the SGC obliterated Atlantis without a second thought.

Rodney had, quite frankly, had enough.  He knew what the consequences were, and for a while he hadn't been willing to accept them just for a chance to make their lives a little easier and to see John every so often.  The stakes had been low, and the potential punishment didn't seem to fit the crime.

But now, all bets were off.  He was tired of this enlightened bullshit and sitting by while Atlantis was destroyed and everyone gated back to Earth for good.  He'd gladly give it all up - immortality and omniscience and peace - to be there for this.  For them.  For Atlantis.  It wasn't even a question, anymore.

It scared Rodney, a little, behind everything, behind his determination.  He knew that the Ancients were particularly cruel with their punishments, and there was no doubt that they would strike back at him for breaking the rules.  After all, he was already a second-class citizen - he had already achieved Ascension by slightly dubious means - and most of the Ancients made Oma look like a meek child in comparison.  He could lose everything, like Dr. Jackson had, but get it back.  He could be relegated to the protection of a planet, like Chaya.

Whatever it was, it would be swift and sharp, and it could mean losing them all forever somehow, but he had to be willing to take the chance.  If he couldn't make something good out of this and help them, then it was a fucking waste of his time.  He might as well have given up and died when he had the chance.

His plan was elegant in its simplicity, really.  Rodney was going to use all the Ascended (and very cool, really) powers at his disposal, and he was going to take down each and every one of those hive ships, one by one.  He was almost itching, in that way that he still could, without skin, to get going, to get moving and make it happen already.  That familiar urgency of having a job to do, and a time limit, and being the only one in two galaxies who knew how to figure it out.  All that was missing was John standing at his shoulder, looming over him, counting down the minutes and the seconds and just generally being a huge pain in the ass.

If he had a body, he would have taken a deep breath.  As it was, he took a moment, and prepared himself for his own private war, and his proverbial fall from grace.

No one was really sleeping, after Elizabeth's announcement had sent the city into what could have, and maybe should have, been a frenzied panic, but was instead a quiet almost-mourning.  This wasn't the first time they'd been forced to leave by something out of their control - not the first time they'd been made to abandon Atlantis, presumably forever.

John didn't hesitate that last night to slide out of his bed, after a couple of hours of staring blankly at the wall.  He knew he probably wouldn't be alone in the halls that night, even thought it was 0200, because no one was really too worried about getting enough sleep anymore.  John had something he needed to do.

The walls lit up, a muted green and gold, then pink and orange, as he put his palms flat on the walls, walking slowly in sweatpants and a t-shirt, bare feet.  I'm sorryIf I could do something to save you, I would, I'd blow up a hundred hive shipsIf he were here, he'd figure it outThank you.  He said everything with his hands and his heart, everything it was to leave this place - again - this place that had been his home.  Maybe the only real home he'd ever had in his life.  Atlantis had literally embraced him and lit up for him.  He was Atlantis' favorite son, and the city had gotten under his skin and in his soul since they stepped through the gate that first time.

He was facing years of taking out a gate team from the SGC - a team of total incompetents who wouldn't hold a candle in a million years to Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, and Simpson - until he could apply for retirement and try to figure out what the fuck he wanted to do with his life.  He'd gotten Atlantis (or Atlantis had gotten him, depending on how you looked at it) right at the time where he needed something to keep him going, and now he was totally adrift.  Even with these cool, metallic hallways that rose up into his hands and had cradled him when he needed it most.

John felt responsible for Atlantis, and he had let her down, over and over again.  She'd been his savior, they'd been her chosen people, but he'd been overrated from the beginning.  He was only grateful that he wouldn't have to watch while Atlantis was erased from existence. He might have stayed, if he could, but what was the point?  Everyone was leaving, and Rodney wasn't coming back.

Not only was he losing the city, though, he somehow managed to do the thing that, no matter how big of a fuck-up he'd been in his life, he'd never done before.  He lost his team.  Rodney was gone - off being glowy for the rest of all eternity, getting all the answers to his questions.  And he was leaving Ronon and Teyla here, again, and this time, it would be for good.  Because before, Atlantis wasn't theirs anymore but it still existed, but now, it would be gone forever.  John never left a man behind, and this time, he was leaving three.

His feet had carried him to the north pier balcony, without him even knowing it, and he stood, watching the lights of the city on the waves until his knees, weak from walking for hours, gave out and he slumped back against the wall.  The sun was starting to come up, and Atlantis was showing off, all of the colors bursting out over the shining water, mimicking the colors of the hallways, and John sat, watching the light flood the sky.  He catalogued each spire and the way the light hit, and each individual color and the way the sky opened up to the morning sun.

His radio crackled in his ear, making him start.  "Colonel Sheppard."

"Yeah," John said, stretching his legs out in front of him.

"Can you come to the control room?" Zelenka said.

"Can it wait?" John replied impatiently, wanting these last few moments for himself.

"I think you need to see this."

When John got to the control room, it was a familiar sight.  A small but growing crowd was huddled around one of the monitors, with Zelenka seated in the chair in front.  Elizabeth was standing just to Zelenka's left.

John opened his mouth to ask why the hell he had to race down there, but then his eye caught the monitor, and he quickly counted the dots that represented the hive ships bearing down on the city.  "What happened to the tenth?"

Zelenka shook his head, his eyes wide.  "We don't know.  It just disappeared, about ten minutes ago."  Then, as John watched, another one vanished.

"How close are they?" John said urgently.

"They'll probably be here tomorrow -"

"Can we see them from here? On the ground?"

Zelenka jumped up and said something in Czech, interspersed with something that sounded like "long-range telescope."  "Yes," he said, "come on."

Someone in astronomy had brought along a super high-powered telescope, and Zelenka, John, and Elizabeth went out to the south pier, setting it up.  Zelenka peered into it, and gasped.  "Another one gone.  They seem to be exploding."

John pushed Zelenka out of the way, frantic, wanting to see it for himself.  Sure enough, after a few more minutes, he could see another small, bright orange explosion through the lens.  He was breathing hard, his adrenaline flowing.  Elizabeth was desperate, and after watching another one explode into a fireball and disappear, he moved aside and let Elizabeth look too.

They weren't saying anything, the three of them, and the silence hung in the air like a heavy blanket.  Elizabeth moved away from the telescope and stepped back to lean against the wall, hugging her arms around her body, tears in her eyes.  "They're gone."

"Holy shit."  John wanted to whoop for joy, because the hive ships were gone - snuffed out of the sky just like that - but what if they still had to leave?  He'd gotten too used to last minute rescues and too convinced that this was the time they weren't going to get one.

"What do we do?" Zelenka asked, and Elizabeth was shaking her head, like she had no idea.

John squared his shoulders.  They were going to get their city back, damn it, and there was no way he was leaving without a fight this time.  "We wait for Landry to dial in at 1300 and we tell him that we're not leaving."  As far as John's plans went, it was pretty much par for the course; he knew that it was shit.  "In the meantime, we should let everyone know, and then get some sleep, okay?"

He turned, still breathing hard, leaving them both standing on the balcony, staring out at the dark, endless ocean and the blank sky.

In the end, it was surprisingly easy to execute his plan.  Rodney knew the anatomy of a hive ship like the back of his hand (he'd been prisoner in one on more than one memorable occasion and he'd studied the schematics in the Ancient database), and he knew to take out their hyperdrive before blowing the ships to smithereens.  It was really satisfying, going in to each one, disabling the drive, and making their power sources explode.

It felt like it should take longer to kill thousands of Wraith.  It should have been more complicated to eliminate this thing that threatened the existence of Atlantis and all its people, but in the end, it was a decision he made and took a shockingly short amount of time to make it happen.

Rodney watched the very last of the ships come apart in the sky, flying into a million fiery pieces, and a feeling of peace settled over him.  He had done the only thing he knew how to do - save Atlantis and each and every miserable human who lived there - and he knew there would be hell to pay.  Frankly, he was waiting for it.  Ready for it.

It was worth it, no matter what.  Atlantis was safe.  He could have sat back and watched it and while he'd still be glowy and immortal, he'd have lost Atlantis in the process.  It was a trade-off he was willing to make, and he could only hope that he would get some piece of his life back.  That, maybe, he'd get John back, somehow.

In the end, they were pissed, even more than he'd imagined they would be.  Oma told him that there was nothing she could do - he had fucked the rules to hell and back, and she tried.  She'd talked to them and pleaded, and she thought that Rodney would consider the decision fair, in the end.

It seemed the farthest thing from fair when they told him, but there was nothing he could do either.  He couldn't scream and yell and insult them until they stopped doing what they were doing.  He couldn't change a damn thing, no matter what he said or did.  It was done, and he'd just agreed with his silence and then he'd waited to wake up.

It took two hours for John and Elizabeth to try to convince Landry to let them stay, and ultimately, the IOC demanded that Elizabeth come through the gate and talk to them in person.  John paced the floors for the hours that she was gone, reciting something to himself that sounded like the first prayers he had said in years.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

When the sirens sounded and the gate whooshed open, depositing a weary-looking but smiling Elizabeth on the gate ramp, John rushed forward and did the only thing that he could think of to do.  He grabbed her and picked her up, twirling her around while she laughed.  It was an unfamiliar sound and an unfamiliar sight, and he knew that people must be staring, but they could go fuck themselves, for all he cared.

"We're good?" he said, leaning in close to affectionately brush her hair off her face and tuck it behind her ear.

"The IOC are bastards," she replied softly, for his ears only.  "But there was no reason for them to make us come back.  We demonstrated our willingness to evacuate if necessary, so we can stay."

"Thank god," and he let her go, to go make the announcement to the city that their second evacuation in months was called off, that they didn't have to leave the city to be blown to bits by the SGC, or used as a feeder colony for the Wraith.  They were all learning to live with the uncertainty of being in Atlantis, of never knowing when they might be asked to do something that they never expected they could, or asked to leave like it didn't matter to them at all.  This was just another in a line of things that were impossible and wonderful about Atlantis, and John was almost shaking with gratitude that he didn't have to let her go.

After meeting with Lorne to work out the logistics of the military stand-down, John wandered the halls, brightly lit in the face of the sinking sun.  Atlantis seemed happy that they were staying.  Lighting up and humming and welcoming them back, welcoming John back, even though they'd never been gone.  Not really.

The balcony that looked out over the north pier was one of John's favorite places in the whole city.  For one, he'd never seen another person there, and sometimes, like the night before, going there seemed to the only thing that made sense.  Learning to not be alone wasn't easy, and sometimes, he had to separate himself and breathe, just a little bit.  The sun was setting on another Lantean day, and John stood, leaning against the balcony, letting himself think about Rodney for the first time in a long time.

Rodney's absence was a like a black hole, like a singularity that John couldn't patch over or fill in, and it didn't get easier with time.  Every single day was another day that he thought would be the day when not having Rodney there would mean the end of everything.  Rodney might have been able to fix this power problem, somehow, or make it better.  They'd all known he was brilliant, but they never really understood how Rodney kept the city and them all afloat until he wasn't there anymore.

Mostly, John just missed him.  It was hard to admit that, but then again, he'd been admitting a lot of things about Rodney to himself since he floated off.  For a while, it had been okay, because Rodney wasn't really gone; he was still there, fixing things and being the Rodney they knew, just without the skin and bones and healing hands they were all accustomed to.  The hands that had smoothed over John's skin and made him hum, like John was Atlantis and Rodney could turn on his lights and his power systems with a firm touch, a kind word, an ancient genetic code.  But that night they spent together, the one that replayed over and over again every time John closed his eyes, had made Rodney leave, and John was pretty sure he wasn't coming back, and that he wasn't going to help anymore.

John looked up at the sky, and it was amazing how, even though the colors were mostly the same, sunset was so much different than sunrise.  The sunrise meant hope and another day beginning, but sunset meant a day they made it through.  Another day in Atlantis completed, hopefully to be followed by as many more days there as they could eke out.  Another day when ten Wraith hive ships mysteriously exploded in the sky.  The sky was settling into muted dark blue, and there would have been hive ships in that sky, visible to the naked eye, by then, bearing down on them.

"Rodney," John whispered, suddenly, breaking the silence and then closing his eyes, because he should have known. It shouldn't have taken him this long to work it out.  "Bastard."  He should have fucking known that Rodney would have known what they were facing, and that, as always, he acted in the best way he knew how, and saved the day.  Fucking Rodney, who wasn't supposed to interfere, unless he wanted to face the wrath of the Ancients, had gone and saved Atlantis, and, by extension, their lives there.  He wondered how Rodney had done it - if he had used his ability to manipulate energy to blast each hive ship out of the sky.  He wondered whether or not it was a hard decision for him to make.

But truthfully, John already knew the answer to that question.  He and Rodney were more alike than they seemed at first glance, and John knew that he wouldn't have hesitated, not for one second, to do what Rodney had done.

They had to wait, and John had no idea what they were waiting for, but he also knew that Rodney wouldn't go out without a fight, and that John would see him again.  The memories of Rodney's taste and the way he smiled when John touched his skin weren't fading, and John felt it, in his gut, that Rodney would figure out a way to get back to the city he'd given up everything to save.

VI.  it's not hard to fall

Atlantis was in a state of post-impending doom shock, and John and the others walked around like zombies for a couple of days, trying to figure out what to do with themselves.  Elizabeth had to call him to her office on the third day and tell him to snap out of it.  The race for a ZPM was on.  Part of the negotiation with Landry, the SGC, and the IOA to stay on Atlantis was Elizabeth's promise that if they hadn't found the ZPM they so desperately needed to fix their shields and dial home at will within three months, they'd leave Atlantis for good.

"The SGC and the IOA are having a hard time," Elizabeth said, clearly irritated, "believing that Atlantis is still a viable mission without the proper power resources."

"We've been fine until now," John said, but it was a losing battle, and they both knew it.  Ronon and Teyla were back, and after hugs and slaps on the back and grateful looks on their faces, they went to find Simpson in whatever lab she'd holed herself in (in that way, she was so much like Rodney that it hurt) and tell her that they were scheduled to go off-world the next morning.

All the teams were gating out to any place that they had heard might have enough technology to have a ZPM, going out and turning around on a tight schedule.  John watched from the gate room, when his team was taking their twelve hours of mandatory rest between missions, as team after team came back empty-handed.  Dirty, exhausted, and shaking their heads.  They all thought maybe, this time, it could have been the right one.

Every mission was tinged with desperation, and everyone was moving a bit faster, pushing a bit harder, but John didn't feel any closer to finding what they needed than he had when Rodney had still been there and the quest for a ZPM had been far more abstract.  Just part of first contact missions and trade negotiations and alliances.  Not this all-consuming search for something that maybe didn't even exist.

The team was getting ragged around the edges.  All the teams were.  John watched the half-asleep soldiers and scientists drifting through the halls and the mess, dark circles under eyes and poor personal hygiene and frayed nerves.  His own team was taking a hit too.  He found Simpson asleep one afternoon in the labs, face down on her computer keyboard.  Ronon moved just a little bit slower, favoring his right leg, and Teyla's face was tight with exhaustion.

John was feeling it too - his body on high alert all the time, needing sleep desperately but being unable to find it most of the time, except in places like senior staff and off-world diplomatic negotiations, where Teyla often had to elbow him out of an impromptu nap because he was snoring.  The Allaran delegation had definitely not been impressed, and Elizabeth was on the verge of ordering the team to stand down so that they could all get some rest.  They needed to keep going, but, during the last mission to PX9-782, John saw his own finger shaking on the trigger of his P-90.

"Okay," he said to Elizabeth as they trudged through into the gate room, covered with mud and empty-handed yet again.  Simpson raised her hand up to cover her yawn.  "I think we need some rest."

"Good idea," Elizabeth said, nodding.  "Seventy-two hours."

John patted Teyla on the shoulder as he walked away, making it to his quarters on automatic pilot.  His bed was in the middle of the room, like some kind of oasis, and he dropped his clothes in the middle of the floor, his guns on the dresser, and he was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

He dreamed that night, for the first time in months.  He could make out Rodney, far away, and the closer John tried to get to him, the further away he moved.  John called to him, told him to sit the fuck still, but he wouldn't and John couldn't catch up.  He just kept moving, kept searching.

When he woke up, he felt better.  Pieced together, but even though he might be able to trust himself with his own weapon, he didn't feel rested.  He couldn't escape the search, or escape Rodney.  John wasn't much for looking backward, since forward was always better in his experience, but he'd give almost anything to have a fully charged ZPM and Rodney McKay back on his team.

John dressed carefully in jeans and a t-shirt and signed out one of the closely monitored, but charged, jumpers to go to the mainland.  He set up camp on the beach, and spent the next day and night immersing himself in the ocean and listening to the rhythm of the waves, and slept in the cool, sinking softness of the sand with the Lantean sky dark overhead.  And when he woke up, he felt better than he had for the better part of a year.

The Clarinians had been trading partners of Atlantis for a couple of years.  They were amazingly advanced in medicine, but had next to no defense capabilities.  Carson had almost gone into a hysterical fit the first time the Clarinian minister of medicine had showed him their labs, and gone on about the capacity to develop vaccines for growing cell abnormalities like cancer until Elizabeth struck a deal with the Clarinian leader to provide them with limited weapons in exchange for medical knowledge and supplies.  The Clarinians gladly accepted, and John figured they'd made a great deal when a crate of guns and some radar equipment had garnered a week in their labs for Carson and a few other medical staff.  Carson came back looking like he'd just spent the week in Tahiti, rested and relaxed and starry-eyed.  And, yeah, Clarinia was nice.  Tropical climate, sunny, lots of beaches, but Carson hadn't even gone outside the whole time he was there.

Their alliance with the Clarinians was useful, too, as they often provided Atlantis with intelligence on Genii movements and recent Wraith cullings on other planets.

"John," Elizabeth said over the radio, "can you come by the gate room, please?  There's someone who would like to speak to you."

When John got there, he saw a familiar face on the screen.  "Hey, Jernick, how's it going?"  The Clarinian leader smiled, his teeth crooked.

"Quite well, Colonel Sheppard," he said kindly, stroking one hand through his beard.  "I told Dr. Weir that I wanted to speak with you.  I believe I have some intelligence that you might find...interesting."

"Spill it, then," John said impatiently.

Jernick nodded.  "There is rumor of a planet in the our solar system that has been making quite remarkable technological advances, Laraf.  One of our traders recently visited there and reported that there was a man living on Laraf who looked familiar, and who was helping the Larafians build some defense systems and other technology."

"Are you worried about the Larafians getting uppity?" John asked, not really understanding why Jernick was telling him this.

"Oh, no," Jernick said quickly.  "Quite the contrary, actually.  The Larafians are a long-time ally of Clarinia - a peaceful and good people.  No, the reason I mention this is because I believe you will be interested in the man who is responsible for this development."  Jernick paused, looking anxious, and Elizabeth shot John a look to let him know that she would have his ass if he yelled at Jernick.

"Okay," John said, feigning patience.

"I have reason to believe that this man is Rodney McKay, Colonel Sheppard.  Klarnel said that he remembered Dr. McKay from your last visit here and he was almost certain."

Elizabeth's jaw dropped.  "Are you saying - " she started, then trailed off.

John's heart was pounding and he was dizzy, so much that he had to reach out and brace himself on the console.  It didn't make any sense that Rodney was on Laraf, this random planet that they'd never even been to or heard of.  It didn't make sense that Rodney was anywhere on the human plane of existence, to be honest, but John had been silently, patiently been hoping, and now here was Jernick, telling him that Rodney was out there somewhere.

"Are you sure?" John said carefully, almost not wanting the answer.  "Jernick - "

"You should come.  The Larafians do not have a Ring, but rather travel to other planets with Rings via small spacecraft left on their planet by the Ancestors many years ago.  We trade with them regularly and could easily get you there.  Or you could use one of your ships."  Jernick's voice was soft, and his face concerned.  He knew that Rodney had Ascended and gone to live with the Ancients, and he must have some idea of what this meant for them.

"Yes," Elizabeth said quickly, moving forward to put her hands on John's shoulders.  "Take Teyla and Ronon and Simpson and go.  Let's see if we can't bring Rodney home, shall we?"

"Yeah," John whispered, turning back to the monitor.  "Thank you, Jernick.  We'll be there in a few hours."

"We look forward to it, Colonel Sheppard," Jernick said, nodding, and then the connection shut down.

John just stood there, dumbstruck, feeling like he was falling apart and he couldn't keep his pieces together anymore.  He'd been holding it together for so long, and now just the idea of Rodney being out there, in some defined space, was too much.

"John?" Elizabeth said, gripping his wrist.  "John?"

"Just a minute," he said, his voice thin like a piece of Athosian paper and strange to his own ears.  He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.  They were going to get Rodney and bring him home, and John wasn't stupid enough to think that everything was going to be normal, all of a sudden.  That Rodney could come back after what he'd been through - after Ascending and descending and ending up on some godforsaken planet - and everything would be just like it always was.  He wanted it though, more than anything.  John wanted to find Rodney and somehow erase the last year, just wipe the slate clean and go back to when things made sense.  Or as much sense as they ever did in the Pegasus Galaxy.  "Okay.  I'm going to go round up the team."

Laraf was a small planet, and they could see its rolling hills and streams from the windows of the jumper.  Jernick had sent one of the younger members of his delegation, a woman named Raylin, to accompany them and talk to the Larafians.  John had learned, mostly the hard way, that having allies when going onto a new planet was never a bad thing.

John kept his hands firmly on the controls, kept them as steady as he could, and tried to even out his breathing.  The world was rearranging itself right before his eyes, like it had done countless times since he'd wandered into that room full of scientists in Antarctica, sat down in a chair, and Rodney had told him to picture where they were in the solar system.  He'd lived without Rodney, and had come to grudgingly accept that as a permanent reality, and then it was ripped apart, in a moment.

He had spent the three hours it took him to track down Teyla, Ronon, and Simpson and get them geared up and ready to go to Clarinia trying to figure out what he was going to do when he found Rodney.  If they found Rodney, because if he'd learned anything, it was that there were no guarantees in the Pegasus Galaxy.  He didn't know what he would say, if anything.  He was at a loss, because he remembered hearing about Jackson and he knew that Rodney might not remember anything for a while.  It could even be worse than that.  He had no idea what to expect.

Ronon's leg was shaking next to him, which was just weird, since he had the strong, silent, and still thing down.  John reached over his hand to still him.  "Calm down, okay?  Stop fidgeting."  Simpson was directly behind Ronon, next to the silent and smiling Raylin, pounding away at the keys on her laptop.  The tapping noise was driving him crazy and making him want to scream.  He took a deep breath and tightened his hands on the controls to keep from strangling her.

Teyla's hand on his shoulder focused him as he brought the jumper down to land in the place that Raylin had instructed, and he landed smoothly and easily, even though he was ready to jump out of his own skin.

"Come," Raylin said, leading them through a small forest and out into a clearing and a small town.  "This is Carnek.  The Larafian capital city.  Klarnel said that he saw Dr. McKay on the other side of the square, near the school."

"Lead the way," John said, his voice tight and high, and his feet were heavy as he followed her, the rest of his team behind him.

On the other side of the large town square, there was a small crowd of young women gathered around something.  John could hear laughing and animated talking, and he knew, with absolute certainty, that that was Rodney's voice.

"John," Teyla said softly, "I think that - "

"Yeah," he said roughly, cutting her off.  "I know."

It was like a scene out of some old-school romantic comedy, where the crowds parted and the lovers were left, gazing at each other.  Rodney was sitting on a bench, dressed in what John had already gathered to be traditional Larafian garb - a long tunic, tight pants, leather boots.  He was smiling and looking right at John and the rest of the team, like he'd been waiting for them.  John moved closer, lowering his P-90 to his side.

"Hey, Rodney," he said softly, his voice giving up completely.

Waking up naked and in the middle of an unfamiliar grassy meadow was one of the strangest experiences of Rodney's life.  He remembered the time in grade six gym class when Jamie O'Connor pantsed him in front of the other boys and he'd cried, but that was nothing compared to this.  He sat up and tried to figure out where the hell he was, when a young girl, probably fifteen or sixteen, walked by.

"Excuse me," Rodney called out, and when she turned to look at him, her eyes went wide and shocked.

Right.  Naked.

"Listen," he said, grabbing a couple of handfuls of grass and holding them over his crotch, "I don't know where I am.  I just - well, I just woke up here, and I don't know why I don't have any clothes on.  Sorry - can you - "

The girl smiled, casting her eyes down.  "Wait here," she said, and ran off.

Rodney lay down in the soft grass, staring up at the blue sky.  It looked like Colorado, sort of, but the color was a little off.  A little too purple or something.  He also couldn't see any of the mountains, which was kind of freaking him out.  He didn't know how long passed before someone was standing over him and reaching out a hand.

Two men, with long hair in ponytails, dressed in some of the tightest pants he'd ever seen in his life, handed him what looked like a burlap poncho, and Rodney pulled it over his head before he followed them.  They didn't ask him any questions.  Not where he came from or why he was there or anything.  Not that he had any answers if they bothered to ask.

It wasn't a long walk before they reached what looked like a small village.  "Welcome to Carnek," one of the men said.  "I am La'tinn."

Rodney stuck out his hand, not sure what the customs were in this place.  This place that seemed, more and more, to not be on Earth.  For starters, there were two moons high in the darkening sky.  "Dr. Rodney McKay.  Rodney."

"Welcome, Rodney," La'tinn said, bowing shallowly.  "Come.  You may stay the night at my home, and tomorrow, we can talk of how you came to Laraf."

The next morning, after a restless, near-sleepless night, the slightly strange sunlight pouring in La'tinn's kitchen window, Rodney sat down and explained that he didn't know how he got there.  He was a scientist, from the planet Earth, and a member of a program that sent people through the Stargate, called Stargate Command.  "Stargate?  Ring?  Chappa'ai?" he said, "Do you have one?"

La'tinn shook his head.  "No."  Rodney's heart dropped out, but then La'tinn added, "But the Clarinians have one.  We use theirs to regularly travel and trade with other worlds."

Rodney nodded.  "Have you ever heard of Earth?  The Tau'ri?" he said urgently.

La'tinn looked at him blankly.  "I am sorry.  I have not."

"Okay," Rodney said softly.  "Listen, do you have anything to eat?"

The days on Laraf were long - the sun staying in the sky well into the evening and rising early.  Rodney woke up with La'tinn and his wife, and he would have offered to help in the fields, but he figured he'd be more in the way than anything.  Instead, he walked, through the streets of Carnek and out past the village, down the long winding paths through green fields and toward the hills.  He felt like he was looking for something, searching for an unknown that was nowhere to be found on this planet.  Something was just beyond his grasp, and none of this was making sense.

The last thing he remembered was meeting with Sam Carter about working on a project for the SGC, in Antarctica, something about finding a lost Ancient city that Daniel Jackson had learned about from some Ancient artifacts and texts.  She mentioned the name Atlantis, and described to him the kind of operation that was being planned, if they could locate it.  He'd asked her where he could sign.  It sounded like the most amazing thing, like an opportunity to break out past all the things about the SGC and mainstream science that were like chains, holding him down.  They wanted him to head up the science part of the expedition, if and when they were able to go.  It was what he'd gone into science for; it was why he'd started working for the SGC in the first place.  The opportunity to do something rare and different, and completely beyond the bounds of theory or even his own imagination.  He didn't hesitate, not for one second.  It wasn't like he'd had anything to leave behind.

And now, he was on a planet that didn't even seem to be in his galaxy, judging by the fact that they hadn't heard of the Tau'ri.  It was possible that he was in another galaxy, wherever the Ancient city was, but that didn't make any sense at all.  He hadn't even gone to Antarctica yet, and now he was here, and something was definitely missing.

A week after he woke up naked, the girl who'd found him in the field stopped by La'tinn's house.  "Hello," she said shyly.  "I'm Ra'teal."

"Hi," Rodney said, smiling.  She was looking him right at him now, no more downcast eyes.

"My father says that La'tinn told him that you are a scientist, back in your world."

Rodney sighed, rubbing his hands across his face.  He didn't know what the hell he was, anymore.  He couldn't make the pieces fit, where they'd always come together so seamlessly before.  "Yes, it's true.  I'm a theoretical astrophysicist, and an engineer.  A somewhat marginal mathematician, to be blunt.  Why?"

"Come," Ra'teal said, reaching down to grab his hand.  The Larafians never hesitated to touch, and Rodney had to keep himself from flinching visibly, at times.  The way they were so familiar, like he hadn't dropped out of the sky and into their lives, just like that.

Ra'teal led him out of town and down one of the paths that he'd been down during his first day there.  There were large leafy trees lining the path on both sides, and Rodney knew that they'd come upon a clearing and some rocky cliffs soon.  Sure enough, she kept going until they were surrounded by rocks and then made an abrupt left turn.  There was a gap in the rocks, and they walked through it, and Rodney gasped.

They were in a huge, domed room, carved right out of the rock.  The writing on the wall, despite his limited linguistic knowledge, was definitely Ancient, and there were things that looked like machines all over.  Laraf was agrarian, and technologically limited.  This had to be Ancient, somehow, because there was no way the Larafians had the ability to do this.

"What in the world is this?" he asked, his voice hushed, watching in awe as some of the glass panels on the wall lit up in a riot of color.

"I've never seen it do that before," Ra'teal replied, awestruck too.  "Our own scientists have looked at this, but do not know how to make any of these things work.  They are beyond our capabilities."  She paused and looked over at him.  "Do you think you can help?"

Rodney moved slowly over to a few things that he could only guess were Ancient devices of some sort, and picked one up.  It stuttered and hummed to life, beeping and blinking.  "Yeah, I think so," he said in wonder, and picked up the next one.

Rodney spent the next three days in that room, sprawled on the floor with any number of Ancient devices around, while Ra'teal brought him water and trays of the lamb-like meat the Larafians ate at almost every meal, with greens on the side.  It was almost too much to make sense of.  He'd worked with Ancient tech before, but never this much, and he'd never been able to make any of it work before.  He didn't have the ATA gene.  Except it seemed like maybe he did, which was just another piece of a puzzle he couldn't put together.

He discovered, among the things in the room, what appeared to be some kind of damaged shield generator, and some radar detection equipment.  Ra'teal smiled, big and bright, when he said that he thought that they might be able to use some of these things for defense of Laraf.  Rodney didn't need to ask, but it was clear that these were people who needed defense, despite the way they unquestioningly embraced him and took him in.  It was in their eyes - a kind of wariness that Rodney had seen among the members of the SGC who had been fighting the Goa'uld for almost seven years.

Ra'teal brought several people with her, including Ca'fell, who introduced himself as the high chieftain of the Larafians.  They quizzed him on what the items were, and he only had a clue on about half of them, but a couple of them were really, really amazing.

"So you're saying that some of these things can be used against the Wraith?" Ca'fell said serenely.

"Um," Rodney said, confused and blinking his overtired, stinging eyes. "Well, I don't know what a Wraith is, but yes, it can be used against any enemy."

Ra'teal squeaked, which was unlike her usual even demeanor.  Rodney had figured out, in those few days holed up in a mountain, that Ra'teal was both older than she looked - married with a son - and also the most accomplished scientist on the entire planet.  She had a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics, by Earth standards, but by Laraf's technology levels, she was at the cutting edge.  Ra'teal would sit for hours and just watch him write out equations and formulas on the paper, asking stupid questions until she finally understood some of the concepts.  "You have never heard of the Wraith?  I do not understand."

"No, we have the Goa'uld where I come from.  I have never heard of Wraith," Rodney said, and when he found out what they were, he wished he'd gotten to spend the rest of his life not hearing about them, because he could really do without aliens that fed on humans forever and ever.

They were using some the Ancient devices (and god, Rodney couldn't help but beam every time they came to life under his hands) to recalibrate machinery that would allow the Larafians to detect attacks from the air.  He also had a small side project developing some long-range communication devices, which he hadn't told Ra'teal about yet, but he knew that Laraf had another city several hundred kilometers away, and he was hoping that they could use the device to communicate with family and friends that they only saw once a year, if that.

It took him another week, with Ra'teal's help and Ca'fell and the others showing up on occasion, to get the shields up, and then Ra'teal helped him haul the radar detection device and the long-range communication set-up back into town.

Some of the Larafian leaders, seated at a large table around Ca'fell actually started to cry when they realized that they now had some measure of defense against the Wraith.  Ra'teal had told him of a recent culling, where thousands of Larafians from all over the planet had been taken onto a Wraith hive ship and never seen again.  He understood now why this was such a big deal for them, when back on Earth, this technology was rather elementary.

The long-range communication device was a hit, too, and within days, people all over the streets of Carnek were coming up to him and thanking him, telling him about talking to their grandmothers and cousins and childhood friends in Loptik.  Rodney smiled at them, but he was grateful to retreat back to his room in La'tinn's house at the end of a long day of being paraded in front of Larafians, who showered him with gratitude.

Laraf, as far as planets went, didn't seem too bad.  He was a hero of sorts.  He didn't know if he'd ever find his way back to Earth, especially since he had no idea how he'd gotten lost in the first place.

Then, one day, Rodney was sitting outside of La'tinn's house and talking with Ra'teal and her class of young girls from the school where she taught, explaining the very basic theories of energy and motion.  Einstein and Newton, kid stuff, really, but they were listening raptly and taking notes.  The square filled up as the passengers from that day's Clarinian shuttle came through the city.  There was some commotion, but trading day was always like that.

He was halfway through explaining why E = mc2 was beautifully simplistic, if a bit naive, when Ra'teal stepped to the side suddenly, unblocking his view onto the square.  Rodney looked up to see four people - two men (one very large and scary), and two women - dressed in uniforms and holding guns.  Like SG-1 almost.  The man in front with the dark, ridiculous hair and the sunglasses was looking right at him, so Rodney smiled.  The man lowered his gun further, pushing up his sunglasses onto his forehead, and he looked like he'd seen a ghost.

"Hey, Rodney," the man said, and Rodney thought he might be sick.

"Hello," Rodney said cheerfully, with a smile that looked all wrong plastered on his face.

"It is good to see you well, Rodney," Teyla said from behind John, smiling benevolently.

Rodney's face didn't change, he just smiled, and John knew that something was not right.  Rodney was freaked out enough to be polite. "How long have you been here?" John asked.

"Oh, a few weeks, give or take," Rodney said, looking down at the fraying hem of his tunic.  The rest of the girls had scattered and there were other people hovering, but they were giving the five of them a wide berth.  "How are you all doing?"

John stepped a little closer, putting his P-90 down on the table next to Rodney.  He felt like he was going to throw up.  "How did you end up here?" he said softly, and Rodney looked back up at him, his eyes wild.

"I don't know, I - I can't really remember.  I woke up naked in a field, and Ra'teal found me and brought me back here.  That's pretty much all I know."  Rodney's voice was soft and breaking.

"Rodney," John said, not wanting to ask, not wanting to know the answer to the question he was about to ask, but he knew, in his gut, that Rodney was faking it.  "Do you know I am?"

"You're from Earth, maybe the SGC - one of the gate teams?  I work there too.  I'm supposed to go to Antarctica soon to work on the Ancient outpost..." Rodney trailed off.

"Rodney, what's my name?"  John said firmly.

"I -"


Rodney sighed and scrubbed at his eyes with his hands.  "I have no idea.  I've never met you before in my life."  He paused and looked at Teyla, Ronon, and Simpson.  "None of you.  Sorry."

"Christ," John muttered, because this was bad.  Not entirely unexpected, as Daniel Jackson had had the same side effect of descension.  He'd managed to get everything back, but he also hadn't known anything at all when he first came back.  If Rodney seemed to know about the SGC and the stargate and Atlantis, how on earth didn't he know who his goddamn team was?  "Okay.  Listen, you're coming back with us."

Rodney shook his head vigorously, the polite act dropped.  "Don't get me wrong," he said, crossing his arms over his chest, "you all seem like lovely people, but I have no clue who you are.  And I'm pretty sure that I'm not even in my own galaxy anymore, so you'll have to forgive me for not just wanting to go with people who say that I should, just like that.  I'm not stupid."

"Trust me, I know you're not stupid.  You were a member of my team - you, me, Ronon, and Teyla - before you Ascended."

"Ascended?" Rodney said incredulously.  "Like Daniel Jackson?  You have got to be joking."

Ra'teal moved forward, her hand resting on Rodney's arm.  "Listen to them, Rodney.  Raylin vouches for them, and says that the Lanteans have been trading partners and allies of the Clarinians for many months.  I am sure they mean you no harm, and perhaps they know how you came to be here."

"See?" John said smugly, crossing his arms over his chest.  The annoyed look on Rodney's face was so priceless and so fucking Rodney that John didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"Yes, yes.  I get it.  The Clarinians say you're a good guy, that you come from Atlantis..." Rodney waved his hands distractedly, but the look in his eye said that he didn't know what the fuck to believe.

John put his hands up in the universal gesture of non-threat and moved a little closer.  "Listen," he said softly, soothingly, "come back to Atlantis.  We'll get someone at the SGC to talk to you and let you know that we're not evil, okay?  General O'Neill, Colonel Carter, someone."

"Fuck," Rodney said finally, his voice faint, and he looked exactly like he had when he realized, all at once, that all the knowledge in the universe came with a cruel and exacting price.  Lost.  "I don't - I can't make it make sense."

"Yeah, buddy, I know," John said, letting himself indulge himself and reach forward, the warm solidity of Rodney's skin, bone, and muscle making him feel like a breath he didn't even know he'd been holding was finally, blissfully let out.  "I know this seems crazy, but trust me, okay?"

Rodney nodded, not hesitating, and even though Rodney didn't remember some unspecified amount of his life, he somehow, viscerally, like a bizarre genetic memory, seemed to remember that he'd always trusted John and followed him, even if he went bitching the whole way.  John wanted to hold on to how good that felt, because it had been too long.  "All right."

The Larafians insisted on putting the team up for the night in some of the villagers' homes. John would have insisted on staying with Rodney anyway, because of the way Rodney's shoulders slumped and how he looked like he'd been kicked, but La'tinn offered him the other bed in Rodney's room and Rodney didn't protest, so it was settled.  Ra'teal took Ronon and Teyla to stay in her house, spiriting them away and leaving John and Rodney alone.

"Listen, are we - " Rodney said, his blankets pulled up to his chin.  It was the first thing he'd said since they came in the room. "Were we friends, on Atlantis?"

John still hadn't come down from the thrill of finding Rodney and the crushing blow of his lack of memory, and his heart was still beating fast in his chest.  He doubted he'd be able to sleep. He hated knowing that Rodney didn't even know what they were to each other.  "Yeah, we were."

"And was I - " Rodney sighed loudly into the quiet, dark room, and then took a deep breath.  "Was I good?  Did I do good things, when I was there?"

"You saved our lives," John said fervently.  "You saved my life, more than once.  You saved every person on Atlantis and people on other planets too."  You were my fucking hero.

"Okay, good," Rodney replied, his voice hazy with sleep, drifting.  "Good."

John lay there, looking up at the ceiling, Rodney's all-too-familiar, gentle snore just a few feet away.  It was surreal, like every thing he'd wanted was right there, in the bed next to him.  Like he was getting a second chance, in a galaxy that was full of the most awful things he'd ever encountered, and yet still gave them second chances, like this, all the damn time.  Rodney was a second chance he sincerely never thought he'd get, and now, it was there, and it was just out of reach.  To Rodney, John could be anyone, or no one at all, and that was so completely terrible that John almost had to laugh at the unfairness of it.  To get Rodney back, but not the Rodney he knew, not the Rodney who had been through everything with them for three fucking years, but rather this person who was Rodney, but didn't know any of them.

He knew he should be grateful, because the Ancients could have punished Rodney with something far bigger, but instead, they were exacting and merciless, and cut the one thing out of Rodney's life that had ever mattered to him, other than science: Atlantis and her people.  He'd lost immortality to save them, and in the process, he lost himself.  The Ancients were nothing if not sadistic.

The Larafian night was long, but the sun rose early this time of year, and John watched it dawn across the village from the small window between his bed and Rodney's.  He was bringing Rodney home.  He was completing his mission, doing what he had set out to do, and he'd have to forget how Rodney had remade John's entire life so fully and completely.

VII. you step a little closer to me

It was one of the most bizarre experiences of John's life - taking the jumper off of Laraf, a large crowd waving up at Rodney as they flew away, Rodney's hand pressed to the window, waving back.  Rodney was clearly terrified as they exited the Larafian atmosphere and headed toward Clarinia.  The flight time was about twenty minutes, and John watched Rodney out of the corner of his eye the entire time, until they touched down.

"Dr. McKay, it is a pleasure to see you again," Jernick said as he strode up to the jumper.

"Thank you," Rodney said politely, his face shuttered, his arms folded over his chest.

"Listen, thanks," John said quickly, jumping in, reaching out to shake hands with Jernick.  "We're going to head back home now.  Dr. McKay has a lot of catching up to do."

Jernick nodded and waved them off through the gate.  Rodney's eyes were wide as they moved through the event horizon, and when they arrived in the gate room, Rodney definitely looked a little green around the gills.

"You get used to it, after a while," John said to Rodney, who nodded but clearly wasn't paying attention to anything except the city before them.

It had been years since Atlantis was new to John - and even then, she was like coming home for the first time - but that didn't mean that there weren't moments where she took his breath away with her strange, angular beauty.  Even the gate room, which was arguably one of the least impressive parts of Atlantis as a whole, was beautiful in its own, odd way.  Watching Rodney's face brought John right back to that moment where they'd first stepped through the gate and come to this place, even though it had been years and millions of miles since then, for everyone else.  For Rodney, it was all brand new again, and John couldn't help but be envious somehow.

Rodney was quiet - quieter than John remembered him ever being before.  Rodney's constant monologue had been going on since John flew Rodney from McMurdo that first time, through the control chair incident, through the wormhole and across three years of working together.  Rodney was many things, and John really liked most of them, but silent would never make that list.

"Okay, we've reached our final destination," John said, hearing the forced cheer in his own voice.  He knew he'd given this ridiculous, cheesy mission-ending speech more times than he could count, but it was also normal.  Familiar.  Something that Rodney had rolled his eyes at a hundred different times before.

Rodney turned and looked at him, his face pale.  "I'm guessing you do that a lot, don't you?" he said, sounding just the tiniest bit the way John remembered him.

"Every damn time," Ronon called from the back of the jumper, and John couldn't even give him a dirty look, because Rodney was smiling.  It was faint, and it was weird, but it was there.

Elizabeth met them at the jumper.  John had checked in from Clarinia before they took off, letting her know that they had found Rodney, and that he didn't remember anything about Atlantis.  She was smiling, genuine joy over the idea that Rodney was sitting right there, in the passenger's seat of a jumper after almost a year of being gone, immortal and glowy and then dropping in uninvited and unannounced and desperately needed.  "Rodney," she said, her voice cracking, and John wouldn't have believed her eyes welling up with tears if he hadn't seen it himself.  "It's so good to have you home."  She reached out a hand in Rodney's direction, but her face fell as soon as she remembered why Rodney was hesitating to reach back.

"Listen, I'm sorry," Rodney said, tired, "I don't remember much of anything.  I'm sure we were close?"

"Oh, no, I'm sorry," Elizabeth replied quickly, "I'm Dr. Elizabeth Weir, leader of the Atlantis expedition."  Rodney nodded and took her hand, shaking it firmly.

"Nice to meet you," he said, a little sarcastically, and John thought that Rodney introducing himself to Elizabeth was fucked up, to say the least, let alone to someone that he knew, deep down, Rodney considered as good as family.  Better than most of his own family, for sure.

"If you don't mind, Rodney," Elizabeth said, the diplomatic veneer firmly back in place, "I'd like you get checked over by Carson - Dr. Beckett - just so that we can start to understand what happened to you."

Rodney snorted.  "I lost my fucking memory, that's what happened.  A pretty specific part of my memory, where I apparently came to this different galaxy and lived in this place, if I'm gathering it correctly.  What else is there to say?"

"Rodney..." John said, trailing off when he realized that he didn't have an answer for that.  And he'd be even more skeptical than Rodney, if the tables were turned.

"I want to talk to Samantha Carter or General O'Neill or someone else from the SGC," Rodney said steadily, evenly.  Elizabeth nodded.

"Absolutely.  The SGC is scheduled to dial in three hours, so after you see Dr. Beckett, I will make sure that it happens.  You have my word."

Rodney's shoulders slumped, defeated, which looked a hundred different kinds of wrong.  Teyla came forward to place a small hand on the center of Rodney's back, reassuring.  "Come with me, Rodney," she said softly, and led him from the room, Ronon and Simpson following behind like some kind of sentries.  When they were gone, Elizabeth visibly relaxed, scrubbing her palms over his face.

"Okay.  So, he doesn't remember anything about Atlantis at all?" she said, disbelieving.

"Nope.  He remembers the SGC and the personnel there, and the fact that he was offered the opportunity to work with the Antarctica project.  He knows that Atlantis exists and about Pegasus as a concept, but he lost the last three or four years completely.  He doesn't remember any of us."  The sting of that was still sharp.

"Dr. Jackson experienced similar memory loss, although his was complete, but temporary.  Odds are that Rodney will start remembering soon, if other experiences of descension hold true.  Don't you think?"  Elizabeth's face was hopeful, but something in John's gut was telling him that this was different.

"I'm sure of it," he said, smiling and patting Elizabeth on the shoulder.  "We'll let him talk to Colonel Carter, and then turn him over to Carson and Heightmeyer and see if they can't get him back."  John jerked his thumb over his shoulder.  "I'm going to go check in with Carson, and I'll have him call you as soon as he finds anything, okay?"

Elizabeth smiled, and John turned and left the gate room, walking down the hall toward the infirmary.  Instead of turning right, he made a left, stepping into the transporter and getting out in the residential area of the city.

Rodney's quarters were a hallway over from John's, and he paused before he waved his hand over the sensor to get in.  He hadn't been in there since the day of the memorial service, rooting through Rodney's room to find something that he could send out into space from the jumper in lieu of his body.  As far as he knew, no one had been in that room the whole time.

It was like a fucked-up, eerie time capsule.  Rodney wasn't the neatest person in the world, and there were still the clothes from the day before he Ascended on the floor next to his bed: a pair of BDUs, boxers, a t-shirt.  Two laptops sat, dark and quiet, on the top of Rodney's overflowing desk, and John could see, without getting any closer, the ink of the red pens that Rodney favored ("Don't believe for a second this bullshit that red ink somehow injures people, it's good for them to be cowed.") scrawled across pages of physics journals and engineering textbooks.

Rodney's quarters were a mausoleum, for someone who might never really come back.  John dropped onto the bed, and sat there for a minute, taking everything in, before he gently lay down on the bed, his head on Rodney's special ("my neck is too valuable for a regular pillow, Sheppard") pillow.  It still smelled of Rodney, the Rodney that had pushed his way into everyone's life for years, and the Rodney that they might have lost forever, that night that Rodney saved them all.

He stayed until he thought someone would notice he was gone, and then got up, making sure there was no sign of himself left there before letting the door slide shut behind him.

Carson Beckett seemed like a decent man, even if he was prone to voodoo experiments of "science" and a few too many endearments for Rodney's taste.  He could tell by the way Carson bickered with him, just a little, that they must have been friends before.  The physical check-up was cursory, and then he started hooking Rodney up to some machines that were like nothing he'd ever seen before, although they bore a passing resemblance to some the Ancient tech he'd seen at the SGC and on Laraf.

"Now, relax, lad," Carson said gently, pushing on Rodney's shoulder until he was flat on his back on the gurney.

Rodney huffed, because really.  "Yes, I'll just relax so that you can poke and prod me and mess with my very large and superior brain.  Not a problem."

"Good to have you back, Rodney," Carson replied, smiling, and Rodney closed his eyes.  It was indescribable - the feeling of all these complete strangers looking at him fondly.  No one, in Rodney's excellent memory, had ever looked at him like that, and now, there seemed to be any number of people who had missed him while he was gone.  The nurses smiled at him, almost shyly, as they brushed in and out of the room.  Teyla and the large, scary man with dreads, and the small woman with brown hair whose name he couldn't remember but he was pretty sure she was a scientist of some kind stood to the side, out of the way, but still watching intently.  Like guards.

Carson finished up and sent them on their way, and Teyla walked at his side from the infirmary to the control room, where Rodney waited as the SGC dialed in and Elizabeth talked to Landry to get Sam Carter.

When Sam's face finally replaced Landry's on the screen in front of Rodney, he had to hold himself up.  His whole body felt like it was giving up on him, under the weight of realizing that none of this was a dream.  All of these perfectly nice people had been trying to tell him that he belonged there, and logically, it seemed to make sense, but seeing Sam's face, her look of relief when she said hello and asked him how he was, like she'd thought she'd never see him again, made him realize that they were telling the truth.  This place, these people, this life - they were real and they were his.  Sam's voice was even and steady as she told him about Atlantis and, basically, about who he was for the past three years.  It was strange, to be outside of your own life like that.  She told him about the Wraith and their time cut off from Earth, the Genii, everything that Sheppard and Elizabeth and Teyla and everyone had said, but he hadn't truly believed them.

"Rodney?" Sam said cautiously.  He must have stopped paying attention.

"Yes?" Rodney said.

"I know this must be hard - I remember what it was like when Daniel came back, but I'm sure you'll remember."  Sam smiled softly.  "And for what it's worth, I'm glad to see you.  We - I missed you."

Back before all of this, Rodney would have gloated over Sam saying that she missed him, but it all seemed like it was happening to someone else.  Like the person she missed wasn't even him.  "Thanks.  I'm sure you're right - it'll come back to me."

"Talk to you soon, Rodney.  Bye."

Rodney waved at the blank screen.  "Goodbye."  He slumped down in the nearest chair, his face in his hands, trying to breathe, trying to remember anything at all, but it was just a void.  A missing piece.

When he looked up, Sheppard was standing there, looking at him.  He had his hands stuffed deep in his pockets, and while Rodney had never been much for reading people, he could tell that Sheppard would rather be anywhere but there.  "You okay?" Sheppard said.

"Yes, I'm quite fine.  Colonel Carter filled me in, and she seemed quite sure that I would get my memory back, so that's encouraging."

"That's great," Sheppard said, looking down at the floor.  "It's good to have you back."

"Thank you," Rodney said.  Sheppard didn't answer, just stayed there for a minute, and Rodney felt the weight of all the things he didn't know about this man bearing down on them both.

"Okay, I'm going to go.  Let me know if you need anything, okay?"  Rodney nodded, and with that, Sheppard bolted out of the room.  Rodney stayed there for a few minutes until Teyla wandered in and offered to show him where his room was.  The hallways didn't make sense, and he was extraordinarily grateful to Teyla for helping without him having to ask, and without fanfare.  Atlantis lit a muted path in the hallway as they walked, and even though this place might as well have been anywhere in the world as far as he knew, it greeted him like he was home.

John waited.  Every morning, he found himself waiting for Rodney to come running up to him in the mess, stumbling over his own words as he tried to explain that he remembered something.  Some scrap of his life, of their lives over the past four years.  Days passed, and then weeks, and nothing changed.  Every morning in the mess, Rodney sat with Ronon and Teyla, stuffing food into his mouth like he always had, laughing and talking and trying to make sense of his missing history.

Most mornings, John sat with them, trying to pretend that they were the same old team they'd always been.  Sometimes, Simpson would join them, arguing amiably with Rodney about particles and waves and the potential of Zelenka's new theory of vacuum space power.

Some mornings, though, he took his food back to his quarters, or blew off breakfast altogether and ran until he couldn't feel his legs beneath him.

Rodney was slowly reintegrating back into the life of Atlantis.  It was, in some ways, like the year that he'd been both gone and not gone had never happened, and yet John couldn't erase the memory of Rodney Ascending and floating out of the room, leaving nothing but an empty bed.  He couldn't erase how it felt to have Rodney's body against his own, even though it was just temporary, just fleeting, and while he might really have been there, Rodney hadn't been real in that moment.

John knew that he shouldn't avoid Rodney.  Elizabeth had told him that it was probably best if everyone just got back to normal and treated Rodney as they always had, but John couldn't make himself do it.  It wasn't normal - it was the furthest thing from normal that John could think of.  He'd managed to figure out how to live without Rodney in the past year.  How to live without someone who he could always trust to have his back in situations where Rodney was the only one who could save them.  Where brute strength or diplomatic skills were not enough.  Simpson was good in the field, and getting better, but even she knew that no one was like Rodney was under pressure, when it really counted.

John had also learned to live without Rodney at team dinners in the mess, and movie night, when Rodney came armed with popcorn and seven different kinds of chocolate and a drool-worthy sci-fi collection.  He'd learned to live without his best friend, and the only person who really knew him, no matter how much he'd let himself open up to people on Atlantis.  He'd learned how not to long for something he couldn't have, and shouldn't have wanted anyway, even if he'd held onto it for that brief moment before Rodney slipped out of his fingers all over again.

He didn't know how to be around Rodney and not want all of those things that Rodney couldn't give him, not now.  Not like this.

Instead of spending time with Rodney and being normal, John took to stalking him.  John had had pretty decent tracking and stealth skills before Atlantis, and he was even better now.  Rodney never picked up on John lurking outside of the labs, or listening in from eight tables away in the mess.  He never saw John in the hall when he came back to his quarters at the end of the night.

On a good day, John could admit that it wasn't healthy or okay to be trailing Rodney around, but he needed to know what was going on and what Rodney was doing.  And a small part of him was a little afraid that if he stopped paying attention, Rodney would float away all over again, and they wouldn't be able to find him on a peaceful, technologically stunted, agrarian planet this time.  And another part of him needed to know that Rodney was okay and that he was figuring out how to manage Atlantis.

The crazy thing was, Rodney seemed to be doing really good.  One night, after Rodney and Zelenka had left the mess arguing loudly about whether or not Rodney, in his inferior, descended state, could figure out how to fix the power drain problem in a month, John finished up his potato-ish things and followed them, far enough behind that they didn't know.  When they got to the labs, Cooper and Wang were standing there, covered in something that looked like green slime.

"Are you kidding me?" Rodney said, holding his hand up to Zelenka, as if to inform him that he needed to interrupt their argument to deal with some stupid people.  "How many times do I have to tell you not to touch anything?"

"But, Dr. McKay, it wasn't my -" Cooper started, her lower lip wobbling.

"Do not.  I knew there must have been a reason that I took time out of my busy Ascended schedule of omniscience to berate you with elementary school computer code."

"We didn't mean -" Wang interrupted, but Rodney just rolled his eyes and moved his hand from Zelenka to Wang.

"Just clean it up.  And for Christ's sake, just stop touching things and stick to non-essential work that doesn't hurt anyone, okay?"  Wang and Cooper slinked off, and John couldn't help but fight a smile as he headed back to his quarters.  Rodney berating his staff was like a revelation. It was kind of crazy, but he'd missed it.

He also noticed, even though Ronon and Teyla were better at the stealth thing than he was and definitely knew about his stalking, that Rodney was learning about what he couldn't remember.  He spent a lot of time with Ronon and Teyla, at meals or late at night, looking at mission reports and listening intently as Ronon and Teyla filled in the details, or the things that they'd intentionally left out from some of their more...interesting missions.

It was almost as if Rodney was using that ridiculously big brain to learn about his life for the past few years, and to substitute that for having lived it.  Every day, it felt less and less like Rodney had ever been gone, and still, John held onto the things that weren't in mission reports or the behind-the-scenes stories.  And Rodney didn't know, really, that it was weird that John wasn't hanging out with them all the time, or that he hadn't offered to be yet another one of Rodney's guides through the missing pieces.

Rodney was used to labs and grueling hours and experiments.  He'd been doing it for his whole academic and professional career.  But now that he knew, from hours of Ronon and Teyla sitting with him and painting a picture of a pretty amazing life he had on Atlantis, he wanted it back.  He wanted to go through the gate and have first contact with new cultures and technology, and mostly, he wanted to help them find the ZPM that he knew, from his month back, was going to make or break the expedition.

Finally, after insisting that he was fine, that he could still do off-world missions as well as, if not better, than when he stepped out of the gate and into the city that first time, he got both Carson and Heightmeyer to sign off on clearing him for active duty.  They both cautioned him to take it easy, because there was no way to know when he'd start remembering, and it could be difficult to manage.

The truth was that every day that passed and he remembered nothing made Rodney, along with Carson and Heightmeyer, a little more certain that he wasn't ever going to get it back.  People expected him to, and he found that at least one person every day still forgot and waited for him to remember some random conversation that they'd had a year and a half ago.  He tried not to get pissed off, but it was hard.  He snapped at people all the time, but that didn't seem to surprise anyone.  Just because this was where he'd lived and these people were his friends, apparently didn't mean that he'd been any nicer to them than he typically was to people.

Rodney walked from the infirmary to the conference room for the 0900 senior staff meeting, and even after a month had passed, it was still a wonder to have the city respond to him like that.  It wasn't even close to what it did for Sheppard, or so he'd heard, but it was still amazing after Ancient tech stayed dead and dark under his hands back on Earth.  He smiled and let his hand trail along the cool, metal wall as he carefully traced the route and came to the conference room.

Word of his mission-readiness had already reached Elizabeth and Sheppard and the rest of the people in the room.  Elizabeth started the meeting and turned things over to Teyla.

"Blandel is a peaceful world," Teyla said, her hands folding on the table in front of her.  "I spoke with Halling, and he said that the Athosians traded with them about ten years ago, just before the last major culling.  They are technologically intermediate, but they also spoke of having some kind of shields that they used against the Wraith.  It is quite possible that they might have a ZPM or some other major power source that might be useful, if we can trade for it."

"Excellent," Elizabeth said.  "I'd like to send AR-1 out tomorrow morning to check it out.  John, you're authorized to trade with them for a ZPM or another power source if you need to."  She turned to Rodney and smiled gently.  "What do you say, Rodney?  Want to tag along?"

"Yes, absolutely," he said eagerly.  The possibility of a ZPM, full shield power, the ability to dial home and talk to or see his sister, who he had apparently not only started talking to again, but who had been to Atlantis twice.  The possibilities made his head swim.

Sheppard was leaning back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest.  "No way."

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Rodney said pointedly, leaning forward.

"I said no fucking way," Sheppard growled back.  "I am not taking you out in the field like - you've had no field training, you can't even shoot a gun.  You'd be a sitting duck out there, and I won't have it."

"I hadn't thought of that," Elizabeth said.

"No," Rodney said, and then again, louder this time, just in case Sheppard couldn't hear him.  "No, do not do this.  I can manage in the field.  Maybe my body remembers these things, and I am a genius, after all.  How hard could some target practice and field training be?"

Sheppard snorted.  "It took your big brain a long time to get a handle on it before."

"Listen, I need - I want to be able to do this.  I'm sick of sitting around in the labs and yelling at stupid people and being useless.  Postpone the mission for a couple of days, drill me, do whatever.  But please, don't make me stay here when you go."

Elizabeth sighed heavily, and Sheppard's face didn't move, his lips in a hard, tight line.  "Okay.  John, you have three days to get Rodney ready to go on the mission.  I'll trust your judgment at the end of the three days if you don't think he's ready."

"This is crazy," Sheppard muttered, pushing himself up out of the chair and stalking out of the room.  Rodney jumped up and jogged after him.

"Sheppard," he said, but Sheppard didn't turn around.  Rodney was panting just trying to keep up with him. "Jesus Christ.  John!"

Sheppard whipped around.  "Ready to get started?  You're going to need all the time you can get."

"What's going on?" Rodney said, finally catching up to where Sheppard was stopped, his hands on his hips.  "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing," Sheppard snapped.  Rodney glared at him, and finally, Sheppard's face softened, hands dropping to his sides and curling into fists, like he was trying to keep from hitting or touching something.  "I just - I'm sorry, okay?  I'm being an ass."

"Yes, you are."

"Come on, let's go down to the firing range, and see if shooting a gun is like riding a bike."  Sheppard turned and walked, much slower this time, enough that Rodney could walk next to him, close enough to brush shoulders, through the brightly colored halls.

Rodney made it through John's own personal Off-World Mission Bootcamp for Civilians, which consisted of running through the city until Rodney stopped complaining, and standing close behind Rodney's back, trying to ignore the play of Rodney's finger on the trigger while he fired shot after shot into the target, urging him to go faster, better, until he was hitting the center every time.

John had to admit at the end of the three days that Rodney was more than ready to go, and so he walked into Elizabeth's office and said, "He's going," and walked right back out again.

The team, version 4.0 with Rodney as a fifth, gathered in the gate room at 1100.  Rodney was practically vibrating with excitement to get to go through the gate again, and maybe find a ZPM at the end of it.  He was quiet though, his head cast down to check the straps on his pack, his thigh holster.  And he was actually on time, which might be a first.

It was strange, this unfamiliar permutation of the team that he'd been working with for nearly four years now.  Ford gone and replaced by Ronon, Rodney gone and replaced by Simpson, and now Rodney back.  John didn't really know how to play this one at all.  He used to know how to play Rodney, once upon a time, but seeing him in BDUs and quietly bickering with Simpson over who got the life signs detector, John was at a complete and total loss.

"You're clear to leave," Elizabeth announced, and nodded at John.

"Okay, here we go," John said as the wormhole engaged and the event horizon whooshed to life in front of them, letting Ronon and Teyla step through the gate first, followed by Simpson.  Rodney walked beside John, pulling his straps even tighter, his pack ridiculous and high up on his back.

"Listen, thanks," Rodney said as they walked up the ramp.

"For what?"

"For - well, frankly, for letting me come on the mission.  I know that you were probably right."

"You earned it," John said gruffly, sounding way too much like a few commanders that he'd had for his own liking.  "I wouldn't have let you come if you couldn't hack it."

"Well, thanks anyway," Rodney said, barely keeping the sarcasm out of his voice as they stepped through.  They stepped through side by side.

When they were through and the gate went blank and quiet behind them, Teyla was already talking to two middle-aged women in long, flowing blue robes.  Ronon leaned against a tree, watching Teyla intently, with his hand mere millimeters from his gun, while Simpson wandered around aimlessly, staring at the energy readings she was getting and tripping over a rock.

Blandel was nothing like most of the peacefully pastoral-looking planets in Pegasus.  It was red, with rocky points jutting out as far as they could see.  John thought it looked like Utah or Arizona, from that one time in his early twenties when he took leave for two weeks and drove the rather scenic route from Colorado to Texas.  He could see what looked like a city not far off.

Rodney joined Simpson, and John sauntered over to Ronon while Teyla nodded at the two women and turned back to them.  "What's the word?" John said.

Teyla brushed a few loose strands of hair off her forehead.  "Cardel and Landel said that we are most welcome to come to their city and discuss trade with their leaders.  They seemed to know of something like a ZPM when I mentioned it to them, but not much.  They remembered the Athosians as trading partners in the past, and welcome us."

"Are they for real?" John said, too many years of getting burned by seemingly innocuous natives creeping up on him.  Blandel seemed nice enough, and no one had met them at the gate with machine guns or anything, so that was a good sign.

"Yes, I have reason to believe, from speaking to them, that they mean us no harm, and that they have no military power to speak of besides.  I think we will be quite safe to go with them."

"Okay, then," John said, turning to round up the troops.  "Simpson!  Rodney!  Let's go see if we can't find us a ZPM."

The Blandel capital city was carved into the side of a phenomenal, towering red cliff, and John could see people walking along precarious walkways in the same blue robes that Cardel and Landel (he had no idea which one was which - they could be twins for all he could tell) wore.  They were led to a large banquet hall, where a white-haired woman in indigo was there to greet them.

"Hello, travelers.  May the Ancestors bless this potential trade union."  She bowed slowly and deeply in front of John.  He hated when they did that.  "I am Jaldel, high chief of Blandel.  My cabinet members tell me that you are from the city of Atlantis and wish to see if we can negotiate a mutually beneficial arrangement."

"That is our desire, yes," Teyla said, bowing her head.  She glared at them quickly while managing to keep a smile on her face, and the rest of the team caught the hint and followed suit.

Jaldel nodded and gestured to the large stone table and benches.  "Please, do sit.  Several other members of my delegation will be here shortly."

It turned out to be a really good dinner.  The Blandelis were formal, but they served a really excellent roast beef-type dish with some things that were probably mushrooms and gravy, and there was lots and lots of ale.  The ale made the Blandelis loosen up a bit, and the table was now noisy with the laughter of ten Blandeli politicians and the team.  John sipped his carefully, keeping an eye on the rest of the team.  Simpson was giggling and pouring her fourth or fifth glass, Ronon's glass was dry, Teyla was, graciously, keeping up with their hosts, and Rodney's glass stood half-empty and frothy in front of him.

"So," John said, leaning over toward Rodney, who had already cleaned his plate and was leaning back in his chair like he could use a nap, "getting anything?"  God, Rodney smelled good.  When Rodney turned to answer, John could smell the ale on his breath.  John licked his lips and Rodney's pupils widened, just slightly.

"Um," Rodney said, his voice cracking before he cleared his throat, covering his mouth with his hand.  "I'm getting some interesting energy readings on the other side of the east wall of this room.  Could be a ZPM, but I'd have to take a look to know for sure."

John looked around the table.  Teyla was deep in conversation with Jaldel, and another blue-robed Blandeli handed them some paper and they were writing on it and passing it back and forth.  His first thought was to take Rodney, find the ZPM, grab it and go, because they could not afford another near miss, but he had to give Teyla the chance to work it out.

"Okay, let's see if Teyla can't get it for us.  If not, we'll move to Plan B," he said softly.

"Yes, right, Plan B.  I'm sure that's an excellent plan that does not in any way involve us being imprisoned or killed by these very, very nice people.  Great.  I'm looking forward to it."

"Now, Rodney, don't you have any faith in me at all?"  John said teasingly, smiling goofily at Rodney until he realized by the blank look on Rodney face that no, Rodney didn't have any faith in him, other than the faith he was told he'd always had in him.  Rodney had no reason at all to believe in John, and that hurt more than he cared to admit.

"Yes, of course," Rodney said, looking away quickly and fastening his eyes on Teyla and the handshake she was sharing with Jaldel.

A few minutes later, the table cleared, the room a dull red light with candles again, Teyla stood up, a small, hesitant smile on her face.  "The Blandelis are badly in need of medical supplies.  I was able to trade them 10 crates of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals for one of their power devices."

"One?  Power devices?" Rodney squeaked.

"ZPMs, I'm sure of it," Teyla said, and she'd be bouncing if Teyla ever bounced.  "They said that they have many in storage in case of emergencies with their shields, but they have been using the same one for many, many generations, and could easily use one for trade."

John sat down, hard, on the unforgiving carved stone bench.  "Holy shit.  Are you serious?"  The ZPM meant dialing home at will and continuous shield power, which they so desperately needed, which meant that they would be safe from the Wraith and the Genii and any more crazy fucking storms that the planet might come up with.  It meant missions for the sake of congenial trade and alliance building.  A stop to the frantic pace of desperate missions for survival.  They were going to be okay, after everything, and John wasn't sure whether to laugh, scream, or cry.

"Very much so."

"Awesome," Ronon said, smiling and pulling Teyla into a quick hug, before reaching over to pat Simpson on the back hard enough that she grunted.

"Okay.  Yes," Rodney was pacing, and babbling, and this was like a thousand missions they'd been on.  "Well, what are we waiting for?  Let's get it and go already.  All of this happiness and stone are killing my valuable brain cells."

Teyla nodded.  "We need to go back to Atlantis and get the goods we promised when we are finished, but Jaldel is allowing us to take the ZPM back to Atlantis with us and send another team with the supplies after that.  Come."

John was suddenly and fully grateful that he hadn't had more to drink, because the Blandeli stone hallways all looked the same, and he spent most of the way to the shield chamber prodding Rodney to keep up and dragging a half-drunk and giggly Simpson along.  Jaldel was waiting for them when they got there, wearing a new, royal blue robe and a serene smile.

"We are pleased to trade with you.  Here," she said, turning a dial and opening a large, stone cabinet.  He heard Rodney make a sound that was way too close for John's comfort to what Rodney sounded like during sex when he saw the two dozen or so ZPMs stacked on the shallow shelves.  Jaldel reached in and plucked one off the shelf, and Rodney looked ready to cry when the doors slid shut again.  She walked up to Rodney, who looked ecstatic and depressed and confused all at the same time.  When she held the ZPM out in front of him with her head bowed, he tentatively reached out for it, clearly resisting the urge to clutch it to him like a little kid with his favorite toy.

"Why -" Rodney started.

"Teyla tells me that you are a great scientist, the most esteemed among your people, and that it would be appropriate to give this to you.  And please, feel free to look around if you would like before you leave.  We are more than willing to share the Ancestor's technology, despite our limited understanding of its function."  Jaldel smiled at Rodney again, and Rodney grinned back.

"Oh yes, that would be - thank you.  I'd love to."  Jaldel bowed to Rodney again, and each of them in turn, before sweeping out of the room and leaving them all there, staring at each other.

Fittingly, Rodney broke the silence.  "Simpson," he barked, and Simpson seemed to sober up immediately as she took the ZPM from Rodney's reluctant hands.  "We can go in a few minutes.  I just want to see if this works the same -"

Ronon and Teyla stood, relaxed but still alert enough in case the Blandelis turned out to be too good to be true, while Simpson cradled the ZPM and Rodney laid on his back on the floor, inspecting the mechanics of the Blandeli shield generator.

"Hmph," Rodney said, "very interesting..."

"Come on, Rodney," John said, suddenly anxious, not wanting any more close calls or missions where they almost got what they needed.  The faster they got all of them, plus the ZPM, back through the gate to Atlantis and got the Blandelis their medical supplies in return, the better.

"Just a minute, please," Rodney said, irritated.  "I think that we might be able to use some of these schematics to improve our shield."

"Yeah, well, we're not going to have a shield at all if we don't get this ZPM back to Atlantis.  Let's go.  Now."

"Please, Colonel, I know that this might be over your head, but this is a big -" And then Rodney stopped talking, sparks flying from where his hands were buried in a mass of wires and crystals, made a high-pitched noise and jolted backwards, unconscious onto the cold stone floor.

"Rodney!" John said, bolting forward and kneeling next to Rodney's still body, not thinking, not caring about anything, because there was no way that this could be happening again.  No fucking way.  "Rodney," he said again, softer this time, shaking Rodney's shoulders.  "Jesus Christ, Rodney, I'm serious, do not do this.  Not again."  He felt around Rodney's neck, his fingers slipping.  Please, god, please.

There it was, strong and beating against John's fingertips, and he felt his whole body relax, because Rodney was alive, and that was all that mattered.  He didn't know where Ronon and Teyla and Simpson were, and he didn't care.  He just bracketed Rodney's face in his hands and looked at his pale skin, the shadow of his eyelashes against his cheek.  "You asshole," John murmured, bending closer, wanting to kiss him so much that he could feel the Rodney's lips underneath his, but he remembered where he was.  Inside, he let all the walls come down that he'd so carefully built up over the month since Rodney had unceremoniously fell back into John's life, as quickly and gracelessly as he'd entered it the first time.  He hadn't wanted to feel this - he wouldn't fucking stand for letting Rodney break him apart like that, but on some level, maybe Rodney had the right to know.  Maybe John had the right, somehow, to have it.

"John."  Teyla's voice was soft, and her hand hot as it came down on his shoulder.  John let Rodney's face go, his own face red and his breath coming fast, staying right at Rodney's side until he started to blink open his eyes.

A fully charged ZPM.  It was beautiful - the most beautiful thing Rodney had seen in his life, outside of Atlantis herself.  Orange and glowing and full of life and power and everything they needed to keep going, and Rodney wanted to cry it looked so good.  He resisted the almost-overpowering urge to rip it out of Jaldel's hands, but he was too scared of Teyla to screw around with her diplomacy, so he smiled and thanked her and took a mental note to kiss Teyla when they got home for making sure he got to touch it first.

This mission had gone so well, and Rodney couldn't help but feel ridiculously smug that John had made such a big deal about Rodney not being ready to go off-world yet.  The Blandelis were really nice, and their food was amazingly good and 100% citrus-free, and Sheppard had smiled at him at dinner and leaned in close enough that Rodney could smell his really girly hair gel.

It was a good thing that he and John didn't seem very close, because Sheppard was too hot to be around all the time without it getting really, really inconvenient.

When Jaldel offered him free reign with their shields, he made sure that Simpson had her hands firmly on the ZPM before he slid down onto his back and looked at what was going on.  There were wires and crystals - things that looked mostly familiar from being underneath control panels on Atlantis and repairing jumpers.  He brought his hands up to rest on a blue crystal that didn't look like anything he'd ever seen before.  God, he could spend hours under here if Sheppard would stop bitching at him and let him work.

Rodney had just got his grip firmly on the cloudy, blue polymer when he felt the current through his bones.  Fuck.  Everything hurt, and went black, and he could vaguely hear someone calling his name, someone's rough fingertips on his cheeks, someone's breath close on his cheek.

When he blinked his eyes open, Teyla and Sheppard were leaning over him.  Teyla was smiling faintly.  "Rodney, are you okay?"

"Yes, just mild electrocution." he said, clearing his throat.  He looked at Sheppard, whose eyes were a little wild.  "Sheppard -"

Sheppard held up his hands, in surrender, which didn't make sense, scrambling to his feet and backing away.  "I told you we should go."

He knew suddenly, instantly, that the hands that touched him were too rough to be Teyla's, and Ronon and Simpson weren't close enough.  He didn't understand, because Sheppard hadn't been that close to him once since he'd gotten to Atlantis.  He always kept a measured distance between them, which Rodney had always thought just meant that they had a professional relationship and casual friendship, nothing more, which made sense since Sheppard was military and hot and all that.  No one like that had ever paid much attention to Rodney anyway.  It was no big deal.

But Sheppard looked scared shitless, even as he was getting his hand on his gun and glancing up as Teyla helped Rodney to his feet.  Rodney brushed some fine, red Blandeli stone dust off the back of his pants.  "Okay, let's go," he said resolutely, and Sheppard gestured him forward, after Ronon, Simpson, and Teyla, and followed him out.

The trip back to the gate was uneventful and quiet.  Sheppard kept his eyes forward the whole time.  When they got back to the gate, Teyla dialed and they all stepped through, one at a time.  Right before going through, when it was just he and John on the ramp, Rodney turned and glared at him.  "Sheppard."  Sheppard looked ahead and right past Rodney's shoulder.  "Goddamn it.  John."

"Let's go," Sheppard said, his face softening.  "Please."

Rodney sighed and turned around, stepping forward into the watery blue.  "Fine," he said, and moved forward, Sheppard right behind him.

Elizabeth was there to meet them in the gate room, the biggest smile on her face that John had ever seen.  Zelenka ran up and snatched the ZPM from Simpson's hands, grinning maniacally, while Teyla quickly gave Elizabeth the run-down on the Blandelis and their terms.  Rodney stood a few feet away from John, a forced smile on his face.

"Good work," Elizabeth said to everyone.  "Radek, if you could get the shields up, I'll send through Major Lorne and his team to deliver the supplies to the Blandelis.  John, I want your team in my office at 0900 tomorrow morning for a debrief."  She clapped him on the back and John tried not to flinch.  She turned away and started talking to Teyla again.

"Colonel - " Rodney started, coming closer, one hand outstretched.  John couldn't do this.  He couldn't talk about this right now.  He could still feel Rodney's hot breath against his face, the skin of Rodney's face against his fingertips.

"Not now," he hissed, and Rodney backed off, like he was burned.  John nodded at Elizabeth and fled the room, walking fast through the corridors, ignoring the way the hallways seemed to move in to greet him.

When he got to his quarters, he quickly stripped down until he was wearing his black t-shirt, still tinged red with dust, and his boxers.  His heart was pounding just thinking about Rodney on his back on that cold, stone floor, unconscious and he fucking hated how much that scared him.  How much, despite how he'd been trying to cut ties with Rodney somehow since he'd been back, that the idea of him being gone again tore open a hole inside John that he couldn't stop, and it would keep getting bigger and bigger until it destroyed him.

He missed Rodney.  He'd been missing Rodney for over a year, since he turned into a goddamn superhero and then flitted out of John's life like it was nothing.  Like they were nothing at all.  He wanted to kick himself for never telling Rodney that it was more than friendship for him - which it had been for a long time, to be completely honest.  He thought he had more time, even though every day brought impending death in the Pegasus Galaxy.  Maybe, someday, he would have told Rodney.  Instead, he found himself kissing Rodney in his quarters - Rodney in temporary solid, present form, and it took another plane of existence to break down the walls that they'd built up between them and the possibilities.

The Ancients were fucking cruel bastards, to send Rodney back to them, whole and so much himself, but missing Atlantis and everything that had happened there.  Everything that they had all become to each other, and erasing the memory of John and a couple of surreal, furtive exchanges between pure energy and a mere mortal.  John wanted Rodney back.  He'd gladly give up what they'd become to each other after Rodney Ascended for the opportunity to have his friend back.

John sat down heavily on the bed, his arms dropping between his legs and his head bowed.  He felt like the weight of everything was pushing him down.

He brought his head up when he heard the sound of the locks disengaging and his door sliding open, and he was greeted with the welcome sight of a thoroughly pissed off Rodney McKay.

"Don't you knock?" John said, smiling wryly.

"Oh, shut up.  Atlantis rolls over for other people, too, you know.  It wasn't hard," Rodney said, waving his hand in dismissal.

John leaned back on his elbows.  "To what do I owe this honor?"

"Seriously, I will actually kill you.  What the hell is wrong with you, Sheppard?"  Rodney's voice was quieter than it normally was when he was ranting, but with an edge that John wasn't used to.

"Relax, Rodney.  I'm fine."  It sounded like a lie, even to him.

Rodney walked closer, holding up a hand.  "Right.  Sure.  First," Rodney held up a hand and started counting on his fingers, "this is the first time we've been alone together in a room since I left Laraf, and even though there's nothing in the mission reports that says otherwise, I figure that must be strange for us.  Two, I think we must have been friends before because there's something no one is telling me, and you've been avoiding me like the plague.  Three, you won't talk to me.  It's killing me.  I -"

"Rodney, stop," John said, standing up.  "Just stop.  I don't want to do this right now.  I'm exhausted - I feel like I haven't slept in four years. I just want to be alone."

"Oh, no," Rodney said, his voice getting louder, stepping closer until he was right inside of John's personal space.  With most people, John would hardly be able to resist the urge to push them away, but Rodney's closeness, the smell of ale still on his breath and his lab-created sunscreen on his skin, was making John dizzy.  "Don't blow me off.  What are we to each other?  I need to know, I can't remember a damn thing and it's driving me crazy, but I know that there's something.  I know -"

When John gripped Rodney's biceps, pulling him in and pressing their lips together, silencing Rodney's impending wrath with a swipe of his tongue, everything came rushing back to John.  All the casual touches, their shoulders brushing while sitting next to each other watching Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica, the way Rodney had kissed him that day in his room, after John was sure he'd never see him again as anything other than glowy tendrils of light.  The way Rodney had touched him and made him come and then left, because he knew they couldn't do this anymore - that Rodney couldn't afford it.  Every moment came back, and John didn't ever want to let go.  He was terrified of what would happen if he ever let Rodney go again.

"Oh god," Rodney gasped, pulling away and burying his face in John's neck, pressing soft, teasing kisses below John's ear and making him shiver.  "We did this, before?"

"Yes.  And no." John said, tugging on the bottom hem of Rodney's t-shirt until he could get his hands on Rodney's warm, slightly sweaty skin.

"What does that mean?" Rodney said, groaning and licking along John's collarbone.

"Well, yes if you count sex after you Ascended, no if you don't."

"You had sex with me while I was on another plane of existence?" Rodney said incredulously, and John laughed, because it seemed crazy, now.  It sounded crazy, and only in this life and in Atlantis would someone ever have to decide if sex with an Ascended being counted or not.

"Yeah," John answered.  Rodney stepped back just a little, parting from John's neck long enough to let John pull his shirt over his head.  He looked like he wanted to say something, but John was done talking.  "Now, shut up."

In his mind, memories of sex with Rodney - Rodney moving against him until they both came, fast and hard - were almost like a dream.  This time, there was time to take off clothes, to kiss and touch like they had all day and all night to do just this, like they had forever.  Rodney felt amazingly good, and when he pressed John down on his back and nudged at John to part his legs, to let Rodney in, he didn't hesitate.  He'd spent too long hesitating, and even if this was the stupidest idea that he'd ever had, even if Rodney without the memories turned out not to be the Rodney he wanted, he wasn't going to wait anymore.

Rodney was hard up against him, and John remembered that feeling like it was yesterday, like Rodney had actually been there.  He wanted more than this - he didn't want this to just be another thing that might never have happened.  "Come on," he urged, drawing Rodney's hand down between his legs and behind his balls, trying to say what he wasn't sure he could say with words.  That he wanted Rodney.  That he trusted him.  That they were this, even now.

"Yes.  John," Rodney said, and he was nothing if not a quick study.  The first push of Rodney's slick fingers against him made him gasp, and Rodney bit his lower lip and worked John until he was begging for it.  It hurt - it had been a really long time - and John had to breathe and relax and take it, but when Rodney was all the way in, whispering things in John's ear that might have been Ancient for all they made sense to John, John wrapped his legs around Rodney's waist and said, "fuck me."

Rodney moaned loudly, pushing in like he didn't understand going slow or being careful, which was fine, it was great actually, exactly what John needed.  He let his arms come up around Rodney's back.  John's cock was pinned between Rodney's belly and his own, and he wasn't going to last long at all like this.  Not after all this time.  Not after thinking about this for a year.

"Rodney, I can't -" he whispered, and Rodney kissed his neck.

"It's okay.  Come on," Rodney said, his voice hoarse, "I want you to."

When John came, Rodney just kept fucking him, his thrusts harder and deeper, breaking John apart into a thousand different component parts.  John relaxed against the bed, panting, holding onto Rodney until he sighed and bit down on John's neck, gently, going still as he came.

Rodney still wasn't used to the sunrise on Atlantis.  The glowing color of the sky was truly alien - it was nothing like Toronto or Los Angeles or Colorado Springs had ever been.  For a moment, he was scared that had lost time again, because this didn't look like anywhere he was familiar with, the view all wrong, until he turned over and came face to face with a sleeping John Sheppard.

The last night came flooding back to him, the overwhelming feeling of being inside John, the way that everything had made so much more sense knowing that he wasn't just friends with John - that they were much more than that.  He'd been hoping that, maybe, figuring out John might have been what he needed to do to start remembering, to start putting the pieces of the equation together, but he didn't have any more than he did before.  Nothing more than the memory of John from the night before, kissing him like he couldn't wait one more second.

"Hey," John said groggily, rolling over to drape his arms and legs over Rodney's body.  John was warm and slightly sticky from sleep.  "What are you thinking about?"

"About how I still don't remember anything," he said softly, and the conclusion that he should have come to weeks ago, that was lurking at the edges waiting for him, seemed perfectly clear.

John propped his head up on his hand, looking down at Rodney.  "Well, Beckett and Heightmeyer say that you'll get it back."  He could see it in John's face too.  He knew.

"But I'm not going to, am I?"  It was quiet, neither of them saying anything for a moment.

"Rodney," John said finally, cupping Rodney's cheek.  "You don't know that."

"Yes, I do," Rodney said resolutely.  "You know it, too.  You've known it for a while."  John was silent, and then he flopped down on his back and covered his eyes with his forearm.

"Goddamn it," John said.

"It's okay.  I mean, I'm okay with it.  I mean, I hate the way people expect me to know things that I don't, and I hate having to play catch up all the time with my work, but I feel like even if I don't remember things, I'm getting people back.  I know that it's not the same, that I can't remember all the things we've been through, but there has to be - I don't know - something - otherwise, how would I have gotten you back?"

"Jesus, Rodney," John said, reaching out and pulling Rodney forward.  John's arms came up around him, and, just for that moment, he knew, deep in his gut, that he really was okay with it.  Maybe there was a reason - some idiotic and ill conceived divine plan that the Ancients had for him when they took away Atlantis and everyone in it.  Maybe it was just cruel, like so many other things that the Ancients did.  Maybe, when he'd been Ascended, he understood everything that was planned for him and what he was supposed to do.  Now, though, here in John's bed, with John wrapped around him, Rodney felt like he was being given a second shot at these people and this place - at a series of near-misses and not enough sleep and enemies around every corner.  It was either this or eternal life and complete understanding, and from what he could tell, he'd take this.  He had chosen this once already, and he was going to hold onto this life, to John, with every thing he had, for as long as he had.

The End