The enticing ripple of the event horizon shone liquid crystal blue only a tantalising fifty yards or so away, but Rodney could see there was no way they were going to make it. He and John were pinned down behind a broken down wall amidst the ruins with close to twenty Wraith drones between them and the Stargate.
Rodney could hear his heart pounding and feel the blood pulsing through his ears as he concentrated on not panicking. A panicking Rodney was the last thing John needed right now.
Panting a little from pure terror and the recent horrifying plunge through the trees as they once again ran for their lives, Rodney tried to focus on the positive. At least Teyla and Ronon were safe; they had both emerged from the opposite side of the forest, dialled Atlantis and dove through the wormhole to safety before he and John had been forced into the position they were in now.
At least he was with John. The situation was dire, but being with John made all the difference. Whatever happened now would happen to both of them and Rodney would settle for that over being the one left behind any time.
He shuddered at the very thought and pushed it aside. John was crouched by his side, not even breathing hard despite their recent frantic run.
He felt rather than saw the soldier looking at him so he looked up and met John's gaze.
"You OK, Rodney?"
Nodding once he said, "Yeah," looked away from John and checked his watch.
"How long?" John asked voice level and rather shockingly normal even in a whisper.
"About twenty nine minutes left." The Wraith between them and the gate had been unable to shut the wormhole down after Teyla and Ronon had gone through. They didn't know why. The dialling mechanism obviously worked, but it seemed like they had to wait for the wormhole to shut down naturally. He and John were trying to work out if this was an advantage or not.
John nodded, peering through a small gap in the wall at the drones who were obviously deciding how best to capture their prey.
"So we either have to hold out for almost half an hour till the wormhole shuts itself down naturally and then hope Atlantis can dial back fast enough to establish a wormhole from their side and send a rescue party, or..."
Rodney knew it was nigh on impossible for them to hold out that long. They were pinned down and short on ammunition. The cavalry was standing by in Atlantis, they knew from a brief radio call with Carter before John had demanded radio silence so they didn't give away their position.
"Or we fight our way through." He finished John's sentence and was surprised that his voice didn't quaver.
Rodney's heart rate did the impossible and sped up even more, but John was speaking again.
"What's your ammo like?"
There were any number of responses to that question, but now very definitely wasn't the time for anything but the truth.
"Two of each, in addition to the one loaded," he said quickly. "You did most of the shooting while we were running before." Rodney had been concentrating more on the running for his life part. Firing a P90 accurately, whilst hurtling pell-mell through a forest was not his strong suit.
"Ok, gimme one of your P90 clips."
Rodney handed the clip over and John stashed it in his ammo pouch.
"Thanks." He peered out again. "Okay, a frontal assault is not gonna be easy for them or they'd be on us by now. They're gonna have to come around the back."
Rodney instantly spun round so he was facing the opposite way, cursing himself for having to be told, he should know better by now, and started scanning the trees. He pulled out his field glasses to get a better look although his eyesight was probably plenty good enough. They had some cover behind from the ruins and there were a couple of stretches of open ground for the Wraith to cross making them a little more vulnerable to attack... kinda.
"Why don't they just rush us?" Rodney had to ask. He was surprised they weren't shooting yet. "They outnumber us about ten to one."
"Because we know there are only two of us, but they don't."
"'K." Rodney nodded, it made sense.
Suddenly John raised his P90 and fired off several short, sharp bursts. Rodney jumped a little at the noise, but didn't stop scanning the trees.
"That's two less," John breathed as he peered through the gap making sure the two drones actually stayed down.
Rodney raised the field glasses again and his breath hitched in his throat.
"Four more coming through the trees."
John nodded, but didn't turn. "Remember, short bursts, don't waste ammo. If you get a chance use a grenade but try not to destroy our cover."
John's short, terse sentences told Rodney just how screwed he really thought they were.
Suddenly, John was up and firing again. "One more!" he said grimly as he pulled back further behind the wall again.
Rodney readied his P90.
"Two more coming my way," John spat tersely.
"Shit!" Rodney swore. He had lost sight of the four drones for only a few seconds and suddenly they were much closer... too close. A part of him wondered if the damn things could teleport.
Almost without thinking he grabbed a grenade from his vest, pulled the pin and threw. His aim was way off but it turned out his 'luck' was in. The grenade hit a wall to the right, ricocheted off it and exploded right in the middle of the group of drones. He was surprised by the accuracy of the ricochet but there was no time to consider what it meant because John was firing again and then they both got showered with debris. Rodney forced himself not to think about exactly what the debris consisted of, he concentrated only on the fact that the four drones were gone and started scanning for more.
"Nice!" John said and Rodney could hear the grin in his voice.
"Lucky!" Rodney's reply didn't have an attached grin.
"Hey, I'll take anything I can get." Briefly, John laid a hand on his arm and Rodney could feel the other man's warmth seeping through his sleeve and into his skin. "Time?" John asked steadily.
"Twenty two minutes."
"More must be coming around 'cos I'm short now."
"Okay." Rodney hadn't stopped scanning the trees. The Wraith tactics were obvious now that he thought about it. They were trying to catch them from both sides at once, in the hopes that one group would get through.
"How many you short?"
"Four again I think."
"Damn! I've got two coming left and..." Rodney unhooked his second grenade. As he'd expected the other two were coming from the right. They had learned from last time. Rodney wasn't sure whom he was praying to, but he was definitely praying his aim was better this time.
"Keep your eye on yours," he growled at John.
He tossed the grenade left then levelled his P90 and started firing right. One drone went down with the first two bursts. He fired one burst on the second, slowing it, then caught movement on his left. Surprisingly, the grenade had taken down one of the drones completely but the other was up and coming towards them again.
"Ohhhh... crapcrapcrap. We're screwed, we're totally screwed, totally, totally screwed." He was whispering it like a mantra over and over.
John was busy again.
"I can do this. I can, I can, I can. Ohhh!" Rodney fired three bursts and felled the moving drone on the left then turned back to the other coming from the right squealing in a very unmanly manner when he saw it was literally only feet away. He fired again, maybe more than was absolutely necessary, but the drone went down and stayed down. He fell back against the wall gasping, fighting the tremors that threatened to incapacitate him.
"Good shooting Rodney." John was still peering through the gap in the wall at the gate.
"Too close!" Rodney knew it came out as more of a whimper but... He was truly terrified. That had been too close for comfort. Although he was surprised he'd hit anything with anything, he was so terrified. It raised questions he really didn't have time to consider right now, maybe later.
"Now where the hell did they come from?" John, the bastard, still sounded far too calm even when he was announcing the seriously bad news.
"There's more or can't you count?"
"Must have been far side of that other wall."
"Oh." It was the best Rodney could manage.
"How long now?"
He checked again. "'Bout fourteen point five minutes. How many left?"
"Seven." Pause. "That I can see..."
"Hey, what am I, Superman?"
That drew a snort and a lopsided grin.
"Yes!" Rodney answered categorically. He knew John's eyebrows had gone up over widened eyes and his head had tipped to one side at his response, but then John was up and firing again.
"How many?" he asked when the soldier dropped back once more.
"Whadda we do now?"
"Well, there's six left that I can see. We could do with taking at least two more out before we make a break for the gate. We need to lure them over somehow or get closer so we can shoot without being on the run."
Rodney shuffled away from John a few feet and peered round the other side of the wall.
"There's another wall over to the right, like this one, not quite as long. We might be able to get the nearest one from there."
John risked it and peered round his side.
"Good call, Rodney." He scrambled round the other side of his scientist.
John's use of his first name made Rodney feel warm inside, which was stupid, and inappropriate, but true nonetheless.
The drones were sort of milling around in front of the gate, once more obviously trying to decide what to do. With the wormhole still open to Atlantis and the DHD stuck so it couldn't be manually shut down, they were as cut off as their prey.
"Keep low, hands and knees, follow me and if you get a chance of a clear shot, take it. And don't forget to roll if you can't keep down."
John waited till the two drones patrolling this side of the gate turned.
They were off half-crawling, half-scrambling the three or four yards to their next cover.
Rodney thought he heard a shout but then realised he didn't think the drones could shout.
Rodney raised himself up beside John and fired on the nearest drone. John changed targets as soon as Rodney was shooting. The first drone went down and Rodney switched to the second; he got off one burst before the first drone was up again.
"Stay on that one."
John finished off the one that had the audacity not to die immediately while Rodney fired a couple extra bursts into the other to make sure it stayed dead.
Rodney thought he'd given up breathing completely until he heard himself almost sob on the next breath.
"Okay, I'll take off left and draw their fire while you make a run for the gate, and with a bit of luck once I have them together I'll toss a grenade and then follow you through."
Rodney shuddered; he knew this moment would come eventually, the moment when the soldier had to protect the scientist. It always did.
"No!" he almost spat at John.
"Rodney... This isn't up for debate. It's an order." There was a warning tone in John's voice.
"I know that but... No, Colonel... I... We either go together or we don't go."
John was about to protest further, and they were running out of time. Rodney raised a hand slightly.
"I mean it, Colonel. You can court-martial me or whatever later, but right now we do not separate; there's too much risk."
"McKay, I have to get you back through the gate, that's my job, I'll be fine."
Rodney wanted to scream. He hissed instead. "What part of NO don't you understand, Colonel? We need to get back through the gate, yes, both of us. Together or nothing. Give me one of your grenades."
John was still going to argue, Rodney knew. He could sense it, and even without the peculiar added perception he seemed to have developed, he knew John well enough.
"Look, if I was Ronon or Teyla you'd just fight your way through together, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?"
John had no choice but to nod.
"Well I've done okay so far so..." He shook the hand he was holding out. "Grenade!"
The conflict on John's face only lasted a few seconds more; he must have seen something in Rodney's eyes. The shutters slammed down over John's expression and he unhooked one of his grenades.
"Change your ammo clip to the full one and fire on automatic."
Rodney nodded and did as he was asked before finally accepting the grenade. He was shaking. He knew what he'd done, but despite Sheppard's icy calm he could feel what was underneath. A potent mix of well controlled fear, determination, anger, relief and something else Rodney couldn't quite place.
John changed clips and then unhooked his own grenade.
"They're in pairs. You take the nearest pair. Even if your aim is totally off and you don't get it too close the explosion'll distract 'em. On my mark toss the grenade, wait out the blast, then when I say so run for the gate and fire at anything that moves and isn't me. Okay?"
To Rodney's surprise John squeezed his arm just once and then turned to face the gate. "You do the IDC and I'll radio us in so just dive through the gate. There's cover if we need it, but I don't want to have to stop."
"3. 2. 1. Now!"
Rodney leaned up, pulled the pin on his grenade and tossed it before ducking back down again and covering his head. He heard twin explosions. John's strong hand held him down till the debris stopped falling and John peered over the wall.
And they were off and running.
Rodney's aim had been good, he'd felt that strange buzzing round his head as he'd thrown. Both drones were down, but one of the bastards was starting to move.
They both fired, on the run.
Rodney stopped firing only to key in his IDC. He heard John shouting into his radio from where he was pacing, ahead of Rodney.
Then there were three drones between them and the gate. They were staggering, but a staggering Wraith was still a dangerous Wraith. Still firing his P90 on automatic as ordered, Rodney could hear the more precise, no doubt better-aimed bursts of fire from John as they ran.
Then he heard John swear and spotted four more drones closing in from the opposite side.
'Shit!' This was bad... This was so, so bad.
Rodney was spraying bullets in the right direction at least. John was staying slightly behind him, just off his left shoulder, keeping himself between Rodney and the Wraith as much as he could, but Rodney could still feel his presence close enough.
One drone was down. They were about ten feet from the DHD.
"Keep going Rodney," John called.
Rodney was already wheezing though it was probably more from fear than the exercise. Atlantis had gotten him fitter.
There were still four drones left as they passed the DHD, but then they were at the base of the strange grassy slope that led up to the Stargate, and at least one more drone was gone. Rodney stopped firing when the drones were behind them, but he knew John had turned to keep shooting as they hurtled the last few feet up the slope. Then the world went into slow motion. Just before he dived Rodney reached back and grabbed hold of John's vest. The angle was impossible, but he knew it didn't matter. His fingers closed tightly around the stiff material and something helped him half-lift, half-haul John, ensuring that he pulled the other man through the event horizon with him.
They re-materialised in a heap on the gate room floor, breathing hard and slightly stunned.
Rodney heard at least three dull thuds against the gate shield before the gate shut down completely. Then he opened his eyes. He wasn't dreaming; he really was home. A glance to his left and he could see John climbing to his feet assisted by a hand from a smiling Teyla. It took him a second or so to realise Ronon was smiling down at him and offering a similar hand up. He took it.
"Thanks," he said once he was vertical again.
"Jeez, McKay did you need to haul quite so hard?" John was rubbing an obviously painful elbow.
The gate room waited for the McKay comeback, but it didn't happen. Rodney went a little pink, hmmphed and headed off towards the infirmary.
It had begun like an itch. An itch he couldn't scratch, irritating the deepest darkest corners of his mind like long-dead ghosts scrabbling to be noticed, but without the strength to achieve anything substantial because they themselves had no substance.
He'd paid it no mind to begin with, because, well, his exceptionally brilliant mind was usually on higher things. Important things. Very important things. Things like how to avoid death and destruction again today, or the six impossible things everyone, including Colonel Samantha Carter, now his boss and Sheppard's new CO, expected him to do before breakfast every day.
Not to mention that Sheppard himself was little better. "McKay, we need this now! Haven't you done that yet? Why not? Well, when will you have an answer? Why weren't you at team sparring today? McKay, you know training is mandatory for all gate team members, and that includes you; if you want to stay on the team, make sure you're there tomorrow."
Add that to his department. "Doctor McKay, the energy readings were not what we expected. Doctor McKay there's a fluctuation in the shield strength around that damaged area of the city on level 5 East Pier, again. McKay, are you sure these power equations for the modified jumpers are correct." And Rodney felt he couldn't be blamed for at least wondering about his sanity on occasion.
However, this was different.
At first Rodney couldn't decide if it was just him and the emotional and mental tailspin recent events had put him into or if the entire base was operating on a heightened state of nervous tension. Everyone seemed to be more worried than normal, even the military, but now he wasn't sure and the mission's events had thrown him even more off balance.
Post-mission medical checks over, the rest of AG1 were a little startled to find Rodney had vanished from the infirmary without waiting for anyone.
"Did he say where he was going?" It wasn't exactly what John wanted to know but Doctor Keller understood.
"He seemed quieter than normal. Refused to let us treat a good few of the cuts and scrapes, said he was quite capable of making sure they were clean himself and once his bloods were done and the worst was dealt with he left. A shower and some coffee would by my guess, Colonel."
Keller looked concerned.
"Thanks." John turned to leave.
"Thank-you, Doctor Keller."
Teyla was better at handling the protocol of an infirmary without Carson than any of them. Carson would have found a way to keep Rodney there till they were all done, especially if it was obvious that he wasn't up to par.
It was Teyla who led them to an out of the way corner on the infirmary level before turning to John.
"Did something happen on the planet, John? After Ronon and I came through the gate?"
"No... yes, only..."
Teyla's head went on one side, an eyebrow starting to climb.
John took a deep breath. Start again.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that. Rodney... McKay disobeyed an order. He... he fought me over my plan to get us... to get him home."
"Fought you in what way, John?"
This was serious, that was the second time Teyla had called him John.
"Oh, the usual McKay way, argued, wouldn't back down... you know McKay."
"Then should you not deal with him accordingly?"
Ronon's eyes were dark, fixed unmoving on John. Holding him in place, allowing no escape, no evasion. Both his Pegasus teammates knew the sanctity of field command, but there was something in Ronon's eyes that said there was more to this than McKay being awkward and a danger to himself and others.
"Maybe... I don't know..." A long pause and another deep breath. "You see the thing is... He was right. He disobeyed, well refused to carry out, but he was right... this time. He may not be next time but..."
Ronon's stare eased and then flickered momentarily as he and Teyla exchanged looks.
"He was right in what way, John?"
John's mind flicked back to the planet and his altercation with Rodney.
"I know that but... No, Colonel... I... We either go together or we don't go."
"I mean it, Colonel. You can court-martial me or whatever later, but right now we do not separate; there's too much risk.
"We need to get back through the gate, yes, both of us. Together or nothing. Give me one of your grenades."
"Look if I was Ronon or Teyla you'd just fight your way through together, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?"
"Well, I've done okay so far so..."
"He was just... right. I ordered him to make a break for the gate while I drew the remaining Wraith off the other way. I intended drawing them away a little, tossing a grenade and then making a break for it and following Rodney through."
Teyla and Ronon both nodded. It was a standard tactic. The military draws the fire while the civilian scientists run for the gate and safety.
"He argued, insisted that we stay together."
"Perhaps Doctor McKay thought he saw a risk you were not seeing and there wasn't time to explain."
John shook his head.
"No... no he didn't, it wasn't that. He said if I was Ronon or Teyla you'd just fight your way through together... He was right too. He'd done okay, better than okay, all the time we were pinned down. Taken out his share of Wraith, found us our second cover, kept track of the time left on the wormhole, everything. Then... then he just refused to let me go, insisted we fight our way through together, pointed out that he'd done okay so far which I couldn't deny. In the end we did it his way. We fought our way to the gate and at the wormhole he even reached back and yanked me through behind him. S'why I ended up half on top of him on the gate room floor."
It wasn't unusual for a team coming in hot to arrive in a heap after grabbing for each other to ensure they all made it in the dive for the wormhole. In fact, it was recommended, sometimes.
"So he wanted you to treat him like one of us then, like a soldier." Trust Ronon to hit the nail firmly on the head.
John had been gazing down at his fingers as he spoke, but now he looked up into two pairs of concerned but faintly bemused eyes.
"Wh... when did Rodney become a soldier?"
The question was genuine and John's face had that bewildered, lost puppy expression he sometimes used deliberately to great advantage, but this time it wasn't deliberate. Rodney was a civilian scientist. John had instigated and been all in favour of the tough love approach that insisted the scientist learn how to defend himself, run, shoot, dive, roll, survive. Rodney had complained, sometimes bitterly, about being dragged away from his very important work to spend time learning survival skills and tracking with a bunch of uncouth marines on the mainland. But today, today had proven that complaints or not, the scientist had learned and learned well.
"Doctor McKay has become much more proficient in the field since he started going off world."
Ronon shook his head. John was surprised: it was seldom the big man disagreed with Teyla so directly.
"He always was one." That got him two sets of raised eyebrows. "A soldier. In his own way. Just a different sort of soldier; now he's learned to fight our way too."
Teyla smiled and nodded.
"Ronon is correct, John."
Eventually John nodded slowly. "Guess I just never realised how far he'd come. He was as good as some of the marines out there today."
"So what are you going to do about this, John?" Teyla never was one to lose sight of the main issue.
John stood up suddenly. When had he sat down?
"Right now I have no idea, but I bet he's sitting somewhere brooding, expecting me to kick him off the team."
"Which you will not do, of course."
"Are you kidding me? No way, but I need to talk to him before he does something stupid like resign or something."
"I do not think he will do that!"
Teyla called after the retreating figure. The only answer she got was the woosh of the doors closing.
"Let's go eat." Ronon started for the door too, leaving Teyla with little option but to sigh and follow.
Rodney knew exactly what he'd done.
"Rodney... This isn't up for debate. It's an order."
"I know that but... No, Colonel... I... We either go together or we don't go."
"I mean it, Colonel. You can court-martial me, or whatever later, but right now we do not separate; there's too much risk.
The scene was playing on a constant loop in his head. Over and over.
"McKay, I have to get you back through the gate, that's my job, I'll be fine."
"What part of NO don't you understand, Colonel? We need to get back through the gate, yes, both of us. Together or nothing. Give me one of your grenades."
"Look if I was Ronon or Teyla you'd just fight your way through together, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?"
"Well, I've done okay so far so..."
He could hear himself, hear his arguments.
See the look in John's eyes.
See the expression on his face.
See the exact moment when the shutters came down.
Oh yes. He knew precisely what he'd done.
It was the first thing Sheppard had told him.
"Don't disobey an order in the field, McKay, it's for your own and the team's protection. You can take it up with me after, but out there my orders are final."
Rodney had agreed. He understood. He wasn't stupid. It was Sheppard's area of expertise, what the Colonel was here for. And it would probably keep him alive.
He'd broken the golden rule.
Disobeyed a direct order in the field. Not just questioned it, complained a lot but then done it anyway. No, this time he'd argued with no intention of ever following the order given.
With Elizabeth in charge he might have stood a chance of arguing his case, but Atlantis was a military base now, Carter a full colonel.
And he'd committed the worst crime in the calendar. Argued with Sheppard on a purely military decision.
Sighing, Rodney half-fell into his desk chair and dropped his head into his hands.
Why did he seem to do this with Sheppard? Screw it all up big time. This time it wasn't exactly on a solar system wide scale in real terms, but in military terms, in SGC terms, in gate team terms it was definitely in the same league.
One advantage to having Carter in charge was that she knew when a full debriefing was appropriate and when it wasn't. Teyla and Ronon had given her the story while they were waiting for himself and Sheppard to either get back or for the gate to shut down. So, when they'd finally made it home, Carter had smiled her relief that they were all in one piece and sent them off to get checked out. Rodney had handed over his vest and weapons to a random marine and all but sprinted to the infirmary. He'd gotten through the post-mission check-up at lightning speed, even telling the nurses to ignore most of the cuts and scrapes from their precipitous charge through the woods, and left the infirmary immediately after they were done, not waiting for any of his team, ignoring the concerned looks from Ronon and Teyla. Not even daring to look at Sheppard.
Rodney scrubbed his hands over his face, wincing a little as he pulled on some of the cuts and scrapes. There was one on his cheek that was quite nasty and several more he hadn't even noticed until they'd arrived back in the city.
He needed a shower and then to get to the lab and see how many near misses they'd had with either the city or the Asgard hybrid ship while he'd been away. He should probably eat too, but that meant the mess and there was no way he was going there.
The problem was Rodney couldn't seem to get going. The tape player in his head was on constant replay and wouldn't shut off, so a quick shower turned into a long one as he stood there, water cascading over too tense muscles while thoughts chased themselves in ever decreasing circles round his head.
He still had a vaguely damp air about him when his door chime sounded followed by a loud pounding when he didn't answer immediately. Rodney knew who this would be.
"I'm coming! Give a guy a chance!"
Rodney activated the panel and the door wooshed open.
"Oh, it's you." He stepped back from the threshold to allow John to enter.
Not running to Rodney's quarters required more control than John possessed, but sprinting through the halls would only draw attention neither of them wanted so he settled for a jog and tried not to be too impatient.
He'd heard what Teyla had said about Rodney not resigning loud and clear, but... he needed to be certain for himself, and more importantly he needed to reassure Rodney.
Something was going on, had been going on with the scientist for a while now. They were all trying to rationalise it, explain it in normal terms somehow, but John wasn't sure they either could or should. He knew after what had happened on the planet that morning that Rodney wasn't entirely himself because he'd been too certain, too sure they could fight their way to the gate together. Even though John knew the scientist could be incredibly brave sometimes, in a military situation that was all about weapons expertise and physical ability Rodney followed orders. It was why the team worked so well. Ronon was right, Rodney always had been a soldier in his own way and now he'd become a soldier in the more traditional sense, but this was more. There might have been a simple explanation like an increase in confidence, thanks to the work Rodney was doing with Ronon, or something similar, but John wasn't convinced.
When Rodney didn't answer his door on the first chime John chimed again and then pounded on the door till he heard Rodney's acerbic answer from inside.
The greeting he got confirmed his worst fears and the slump to Rodney's shoulders, the way he sat on the edge of the bed with his head down, not looking at John, simply rammed the confirmation home.
Rodney gestured vaguely at the desk chair so John took it, but the way the man was perched on the edge of the bed worried him even more.
"Hey, Rodney. You okay?"
"Of course I am, Colonel. Why wouldn't I be? I just love getting chased through dense woodland and being shot at, then pinned down behind some old ruins, scared witless, and then having to fight my way to the gate. It's the most fun I've had since, oh let's see, how about since the last time I had to do it. When my heart rate finally returns to normal and the new and additional nightmares about alien space vampires have settled down to only two or three a night I'm sure I'll be just peachy."
"Rodney..." John wanted to let him ramble on because at least it meant he was getting it all out of his system, not bottling things up, but this wasn't what John needed to hear, or, more precisely, what Rodney needed to talk about.
The scientist took a deep breath before he spoke.
"It's all right, Colonel, I know what I did. There's no need to yell at me. I know it was the first thing you ever told me when you asked me to be on the team... and I promised... I screwed up and I'm... I'm sorry okay. Well not sorry it all worked out and we got back safely of course, but I'm sorry I argued, I shouldn't have, I know. I know better and I should have done what you said.
"Rodney..." John tried to stem the flow but Rodney seemed to barely register his interjection.
"I probably put us both in all kinds of danger I didn't think about, what if I hadn't been even close with that grenade, what if I hadn't managed to hit any of the Wraith... I know okay... I know I was wrong! Look, I'll resign from the team, there's no need for you to kick me off, and right now I don't need the hassle it would cause... my resignation'll be in your inbox by morning... okay... and I'm sorry I didn't mean to nearly get you killed... again"
Rodney was breathing heavily and wringing his hands. All the signs of a thoroughly wound up McKay, but he'd said it now. All he needed was for John to just leave and he could fall apart in peace.
When Rodney finally wound down, John spoke quietly.
"I won't accept it, Rodney."
Rodney's blue eyes widened and he shot John a truly incredulous look.
"You have no choice, Colonel. I disobeyed an order, argued with you about your decision, probably cost us valuable time and probably nearly got us both killed... again... when I think of what could have gone wrong..."
John knew he had to stop this before Rodney got himself in such a state he ended up in the infirmary.
"But it didn't. Nothing went wrong. You were right, and more importantly we both got back safely. I admit I'm surprised. Guess some of that training with Ronon must be paying off, eh."
"I surprised myself."
John shrugged. "We've been at this a few years now, you were bound to get the hang of it sooner or later."
"Oh, thanks for that, Colonel."
John grinned, encouraged by the tone at least. He was beginning to worry he just wasn't getting through to McKay at all. However, it was obvious Rodney still wasn't at ease with what had happened.
"What I'm trying to say is there's an equally strong chance that if we'd done it my way I'd have been Wraith food by now, or both of us would. What if they hadn't all followed me? That could have been a total disaster all round. Your way, we both came home, together."
"But... but..." Rodney's mouth was open but there were no words. Abruptly the scientist stood and walked out on to his balcony. "It could have been... I could have screwed up... like I said what if I'd missed? My aim isn't great at best... if it wasn't for..." Rodney caught himself before he said too much.
John wasn't sure if this was just a McKay reaction to the morning's events or indicative of something more. He waited a minute, watched Rodney lean on the balcony rail before following him outside.
"Rodney, we both came home, 's'all that matters. Lot's of things could have gone wrong. I could have tripped over a stone and slowed us down... anything..."
Rodney snorted at that. "More likely to be me that did that..."
"But it could have been me. Like I said, anything could have gone wrong, but it didn't. In the future I'll remember that you don't always need babying..."
"But what if you pick the wrong time, and I really I do need babying?"
It was a typical Rodney question.
"Then we'll deal with it if it happens. This time it didn't." John paused a couple of heartbeats. "Here's the thing though. I won't accept your resignation because I know you don't really want off the team, and certainly not because you suddenly realised you can do the soldier stuff, but... even though you can I don't want what happened this morning to become a regular thing. You're still a civilian, Rodney, and it's still my job to protect you."
"I know that, Colonel, and don't worry it won't happen again if I can help it, unless..." Rodney trailed off. John understood the unspoken end of the sentence.
"Good. No matter how good you are there are still times when other people know better and you gotta listen to them, Rodney, for all our sakes."
Rodney nodded once, and all John could do was hope that they were both walking the same line.
Rodney hadn't been lying to John when he'd told him he'd surprised himself. No one could have been more surprised at his actions that morning than he was. He disliked the word feeling, it was imprecise at best and downright misleading at worst, but it was the only word he could use to describe the reason for his actions.
He'd been physically unable to do anything other than what he had. Sure he could shoot well enough on the range to pass the off world team requirements, Sheppard had made sure of that long ago, but he couldn't remember being able to fire a P90 on target so consistently or toss grenades with that level of accuracy ever on a mission before. Not to mention that first ricochet that had been just a little too 'on target' to be just a ricochet; Rodney McKay simply wasn't that lucky.
So why now?
Rodney had no idea. Sometimes he wondered what the point of being a genius was if he couldn't even figure out his own bizarre behaviour.
At dinner in the mess they'd all asked if he was okay after the mission. It wasn't surprising. John was bound to have told Teyla and Ronon at least what had happened, and Ronon had confirmed that when he'd commented about his training sessions paying off.
During the rest of the day he'd tried not to think about it and kept his head filled with nothing but his work. All sudden and unwanted interruptions to required thought processes had been ruthlessly stamped on and pushed aside in favour of the important science. It hadn't stopped him feeling stuff he really shouldn't even be noticing, but he'd made sure nothing had brought the flow of concentration and work output to a halt.
This morning wasn't the first time odd things had happened and he knew his team, and maybe even Carter, suspected something was amiss. He'd expected John's visit to his quarters to talk and that had happened, but he'd also expected to be kicked off the team, and was still surprised that he hadn't been. So if he wasn't persona non grata on AG1 why had Sheppard come to visit?
Rodney could see the concern in the way people looked at him, the way they acted around him. It wasn't that John didn't often visit him, he did. They hung out together a lot, maybe even more when Rodney was dealing with a bad experience, but he knew this afternoon's visit had been different and John's words and manner had confirmed that. He'd expected anger from the colonel and a good dressing down at least, he'd deserved that much if not more, but he'd gotten exactly the opposite and had no idea why other than John suspected this morning had been the result of more than just some hard training with Ronon. He hadn't openly pushed Rodney for an explanation, but that wasn't always John's way. John tended to just be around until Rodney decided he was ready to talk about stuff. It was Elizabeth who pushed for explanations. Elizabeth wouldn't have backed off so quickly or so easily, but, on the other hand, she may have had something useful to offer if he'd been able to explain what was going on.
He sighed again as he realised that was another thing that hadn't gotten done in the aftermath of the morning's events. Tomorrow, once his work was done, he needed to spend some time with Elizabeth. He hadn't been there at all today. Okay, so there was nothing he could do for her, nothing any of them could do, but they'd worked it so that someone was always there with her just in case, and Rodney wanted, no, needed to do his part.
He fell onto his bed and lay gazing up at the ceiling.
God, he missed his cat.
He also missed two of his closest friends. Why did good people have to die or end up in comas? Why?
"Have you looked at the advanced power generation math from the Asgard database?"
Rodney didn't even lookup from his laptop when Carter spoke.
"McKay!" Carter increased her volume and sharpened the tone.
Rodney could sense the colonel's patience was wearing thin, was that the third time she'd asked since coming into the lab and he still hadn't gotten round to responding? He wasn't sure but he thought it might be the case.
Which means say something, McKay, before she takes more direct action.
"What?" Rodney looked up suddenly and thankfully remembered the question. "Oh sorry, yes, here." He tossed over a flash drive directly into Carter's upturned hand. Eyebrows raised, she grinned at him across the bench, the impatience suddenly gone in a flash of surprise when the little item landed dead centre of her palm with a tiny slap.
Rodney cocked his head and hmmed softly. Just like yesterday he didn't remember being able to throw anything that accurately ever before, and there was no excuse this time. It was hardly a life or death scenario. Was he suffering from some kind of hyper self-awareness brought on by his over sensitivity to the rest of the unwashed masses?
"You okay, McKay?"
"Yes, why wouldn't I be?"
"You just seemed miles away, that's all." Carter shrugged but contrived to look concerned, the picture of the caring leader. The last thing Rodney wanted right now was other people's concern; being so aware of people's feelings was bad enough without adding other people's worry over him to his own.
"I'm fine," Rodney snapped. He wanted her to shut up and leave so he could get on with all the other things she'd added to his already too full schedule. As she'd promised at the beginning, she tried to keep her direct interference with the department to a minimum, but with Rodney himself it was different.
It was all done so very nicely of course, so he couldn't even grumble to his team and when he did grumble? Teyla told him Colonel Carter seemed like a very pleasant person whose requests were surely not beyond him, Ronon told him Carter was hot, as if he didn't know that already. Although in reality Carter didn't seem quite as hot as he remembered anymore, and all Sheppard did was tell him to suck it up and that he had his wet dream fantasy here on Atlantis, so what more did he want? The accuracy of that was questionable now too.
As for the 'what more did he want?' part.
Right now what he dearly wanted was Elizabeth recovered and back in charge, preferably like yesterday, because of events like yesterday's, then at least he'd have somebody to talk to about everything. Some days Rodney just wanted to go into her room in the infirmary and shake and yell at her until she had to wake up. He wouldn't ever do it of course but...
Carter was still there, leaning on the opposite side of the bench, chin resting in her hand, gazing at him quizzically as she absently played with his whiteboard marker.
"What? I said I'm fine."
Carter's lips twitched with the edge of a smile before she spoke again.
"How's the seeding program for the asteroid orbital grid coming?"
Rodney had to physically stop himself from grinding his teeth.
"I sent you a report last night." He knew she'd read it, but Carter continued to look at him obviously expecting a verbal answer right now. The report had stated that the work would take approximately four hours to complete and Rodney had been working an hour if you didn't count interruptions.
"I'm three hours from completion. We'll be running simulations by the end of the day if Zelenka has his power equations solved."
"Good. Call me when you're ready to start running."
This time the teeth grinding was inevitable. Did she think he would seriously consider not telling her and risk the consequences?
"Yes, yes fine. We'd get to the simulations a lot faster if I could be left alone to actually get on with it. I don't get up early to work only to have to waste time answering unnecessary questions. I spend enough of my day doing that with the idiots you lot keep sending out here as scientists so..." He flapped a hand in the general direction of the door. "If you wouldn't mind?"
Carter sighed. This was what infuriated her about him so often. The way he spoiled all the good things he did by being such an arrogant egocentric jerk.
"McKay! Like it or not I am still your boss, you know. I have a right to ask." There was a slight edge to the tone.
Rodney knew she was still finding her feet, even the mighty Samantha Carter, SGC golden girl got nervous about being the new kid on the block. He bit back the sigh and tried for a level tone.
"I'm aware of that and despite what happened yesterday I got up at the crack of dawn this morning to get this done because 'my boss' gave the project her blessing and persuaded the SGC to give it the go ahead despite it seeming absurd at first glance; therefore, I want to make sure to deliver results so..." The edge in McKay's voice matched the one in Carter's exactly. Although he did find himself wondering why he wasn't yelling louder, placating his boss wasn't exactly Rodney's strong suit and no one knew that better than him.
She nodded without conceding his point. "Keep me posted, McKay."
"Again, yes! I will. Now..."
Finally Carter was out the door.
"Never thought I'd see the day I all but ordered Sam Carter out of my lab," Rodney muttered softly to himself as he finally managed to focus all his attention on the screen in front of him. It was the best way, the only way to keep the incessant itch in his head at bay and preventing behaviour like yesterday from becoming a daily occurrence. If he kept working, the feelings couldn't overwhelm him to the point of distracting him from his work.
He reached for the whiteboard marker, which was somehow right there under his fingertips and not on the far side of the bench where he was sure he'd seen Carter playing with it only a few minutes ago.
By lunchtime Rodney had completed his own work on the orbital grid and was simply waiting for Radek to complete his power consumption calculations so they could run the first simulations. He switched to the next item on the Asgard project list and began work on that. Zelenka would be done when he was done and there was no pressing reason to harry the man, it would just make him slower out of spite. Zelenka could be a stubborn little man when he chose.
A packet of sandwiches appeared under his nose. Speak of the devil.
"About time. Ooo cheese and ham, thank-you." Rodney had the pack open and half the first sandwich in his mouth before Radek had managed to pull up a lab stool and sit down.
The Czech rolled his eyes as his boss inhaled his lunch and then inevitably started talking with his mouth full.
"How are the power consumption calculations coming?"
Radek chewed and swallowed carefully before answering. "They will be done by four like I said."
Rodney nodded. There was that stubbornness. Zelenka simply refused to be hurried when there wasn't a crisis brewing and although he'd never tell him so, Rodney was grateful for his thorough approach and painstaking attention to detail. It meant he could trust Radek almost as much as he trusted himself.
They ate in companionable silence for a while and Rodney's mind drifted a little.
Colonel Ellis's report to the SGC of Atlantis failure to arrive at the designated planet had resulted in the immediate despatch of Carter and her ship on a search and rescue mission.
"How is the Asgard project going?" Radek hauled him back to the here and now.
"I handed over the advanced power generation equations this morning and started on the beaming technology about an hour before you arrived with the lunch." Rodney paused to swallow before going on. "You know, I still can't get used to the idea of the little grey guys not being around any more. It's just... weird. I'm glad they renamed the Odyssey in their honour. Mnenosyne's a bit of a mouthful, but it's a fitting name, a fitting tribute, considering what they gave us."
For Rodney the appearance of any ship from the Milky Way in Pegasus in such short time had been truly surprising and he'd known instantly that something new or different had happened. With the technology the Asgard had gifted Earth that was actually usable plus the ZPM already on board the ship, the 'rescue party' was able to travel to Pegasus in four days, and of course came fully equipped with the best means of searching for the missing city.
"Good. I'm still glad we didn't need Colonel Carter to rescue us though." Radek's voice was low and level, but it was impossible to miss the tone. Zelenka had as much pride as McKay.
"Ooo The McKay-Zelenka School of hare-brained schemes strikes again." The tone was pure sarcasm but Rodney grinned and chuckled softly.
It had been a source of great satisfaction to Rodney and Radek too, that by the time the Mnenosyne arrived they were reasonably well out of the woods. Thanks once again to some brilliance from them both plus a little bit of that weird luck they sometimes had, they'd managed to land the city on another planet. However, once landed they'd been unable to dial Earth direct. The gate should have worked but it didn't. They could dial everywhere else in Pegasus but not Earth. (Rodney wasn't sure why, but he'd felt rather better about it later when Carter hadn't been able to work out why either.) As a result, he and John had taken a puddle jumper to the gate-bridge midway station to inform Earth that they were okay and found out about Carter being sent to Pegasus and the new status of the base.
"Any word on the situation with the Ori?"
These were the questions that Rodney hated. He knew Radek wasn't trying to trip him up, but neither of them were entirely convinced Carter was being completely open and honest with all the information sent by Earth. They had no proof of course, it was just a feeling based on experience, but Rodney sometimes thought Radek was testing to make sure Rodney wasn't holding out on him either. The seven months they had been cut off from Earth had made Elizabeth's 'need to know' lines much more elastic than either the SGC or the IOA had realised. Carter was military and neither man was completely convinced about the stretch in her elastic.
"Apparently there was nothing new in the last databurst."
Zelenka snorted. "Or so we are told."
Rodney fought not to sigh and roll his eyes. They had this discussion in one form or another at least every couple of days.
"I tried hacking in and you know what happened. Carter came down on me like a ton of bricks, and Sheppard backed her."
Zelenka nodded in sympathy.
"I just do not see why the IOA made the decision in the first place. What difference does it make to Earth to have Atlantis under military control?"
"Elizabeth could argue with them and did. Carter can't and won't, not when the orders come from O'Neill, you know that."
It seemed that with Earth under direct threat from the Ori, and the potential threat of the Pegasus Replicators as well as the Wraith, the IOA was suddenly happy to abandon its altruistic principles and commitment to a civilian expedition. It almost seemed reasonable, maybe.
Rodney continued talking as he gathered up the remnants of his lunch and tossed them in the trash. "And you know Earth's reasoning was, flawlessly logical." The Star Trek-ism made them both grin for a moment. "Carter couldn't remember anything she'd learned while in the time dilation field and studying the ship in the Milky Way was nigh on impossible because of the Ori's ability to detect it every time they used any of the Asgard technology. So keeping both the ship and Carter in Pegasus solved what they see as two problems in one go. Atlantis would become the military base the hawks on the IOA and at the SGC had always wanted it to be, and Pegasus would hopefully give Carter and her team a safe place to try to get to grips with the Asgard technology. It's still as simple as it was the last time I said it, Radek."
"I know, I know, and yes we also know that Colonel Carter admitted, albeit reluctantly, that you were the only person she really thought could usefully help her with the Asgard project."
Radek grinned at the memory and Rodney chuckled.
Rodney knew he'd been his insufferable worst for at least a week after Carter's begrudging admission, but it really was too good an opportunity to miss. The mighty Samantha Carter having to admit she needed his help, again. He'd brought it up every chance he got and then some.
"Oh come on, even Sheppard admitted I was entitled to my 'moment'."
"And I agree with him, Rodney, however..."
"You're just jealous that she didn't mention you."
Radek didn't dignify that with a reply. It was true that Colonel Sheppard, who so often refused to give Rodney any credit for anything for fear of encouraging the man's rampaging ego, had agreed that Carter's admission had had a strangely gratifying edge to it. He had also told Rodney in no uncertain terms to knock it off after a week because it was making an already tense command situation worse. Strangely McKay had raised only a token protest before going back to simply being his usual arrogant self, which was plenty bad enough.
"They should have given the city to Colonel Sheppard." Zelenka's voice was quiet and thoughtful.
Rodney nodded. "You know I agree." Many of the expedition had been annoyed that command of the city hadn't been given to John. "But you also know what he told Colonel Ellis, and what he repeated in one of the briefings when Carter first arrived and brought the subject up. If he became 'the man' who would he have to rail against? He honestly isn't concerned with who his boss is so long as he gets to stay in Atlantis." Rodney didn't feel he was breaking any confidences here. Zelenka had been in the briefing where Sheppard had said it and he had eyes like everyone else. The Czech scientist was close enough to Sheppard to see how the soldier felt about the city.
Once the other man had returned to his own lab Rodney sighed in frustration. He could no more blame Radek for his attitude than he'd been able to blame Katie when they'd had this same discussion from both a personal and professional angle. They were the two scientists he was closest to personally. Obviously neither had left immediately after the military had taken over, like some, but, like most of the remaining civilian science team, both had reserved the right to leave if, after due consideration, they didn't like the way the base was run. They had joined a civilian project and no one really believed that things wouldn't change for the worse, even with 'compromise candidate' Carter in charge.
He wasn't even sure he believed it himself.
The IOA's idea that although Carter was a soldier, so the base would now be military, she was enough of a scientist not to be seen as a problem for the civilian contractors hadn't really worked out the way they would have liked.
Carter herself wasn't the problem of course; personally she was still just as nice and as likeable as always. She was just the symbol of a change that was disturbing at best and downright frightening at worst, but Rodney had to believe the chance to work with Carter long term was a good thing, for him, for all of them.
Radek had been an obvious choice for the Asgard technology project so maybe if he and the others got caught up in the science enough they would decide it was worth staying. Rodney would just have to ensure the military projects were covered by those few who were actively interested in that kind of thing and that nothing interfered with projects like Katie's that were much longer term and potentially more beneficial, provided they all survived that long which of course was why they needed the military, to make sure they did. It was the age-old conundrum that not even Rodney had an answer for.
That thought prompted another sigh.
When Carter had announced that their orders were to return to their original home planet in the Pegasus Galaxy and carry on where they left off, Rodney had been appalled. He considered it far too dangerous and more than a little rash and he'd said so, loudly and often. He'd argued everything about it, his life was being risked after all, and he'd pointed out that there was little point in saying how much he was needed for the Asgard technology project then letting him get killed before they'd hardly got started; anyway, arguing against idiocy was his job.
But... Atlantis was a military base now. Orders had to be obeyed.
The Asuran home world was quiet again. Carter and Sheppard had scouted the planet in a cloaked jumper. There was no sign of either ship or weapons building anywhere, which was why the SGC had declared the risks acceptable, especially considering that with the return they would be able to dial Earth directly again. Atlantis had been declared an Alpha site for Earth should the worst happen in the war with the Ori so they wanted the city on a world where a direct wormhole could be established.
The whole decision to return had become less of an issue when they had discovered the Asuran satellite abandoned in space, drifting lifelessly in a slowly decaying orbit.
They had no idea what had 'killed' the satellite, or if the Asurans had simply given up when Atlantis jumped into hyperspace and left the device to die in space.
Once the city was safely back and in regular contact with Earth they had salvaged the whole device and Simpson was leading a team trying to learn all they could about the weapon that had almost cost them everything.
Despite all the military reassurances, Rodney was still concerned. The Asurans may appear dormant for now, but this was the second time humanity had encountered a powerful beam weapon directed through a Stargate and if two enemies could come up with the idea independently then so could more.
The strategy of leaving the planet and heading elsewhere had been sound, but its execution had been a nightmare. Doing it again whilst under attack filled Rodney with dread, so he had come up with a plan to make a kind of orbital defence using the broken bits of asteroid from Lantea's destroyed moon.
The idea was to seed an orbital cube of asteroid pieces each held in a unique interconnecting energy field that would allow them to orbit the planet, but be repositioned from Atlantis if ever the Asurans, or anyone else, tried a similar kind of weapon again. Actually, they could be used to defend the planet in any number of ways if necessary. The idea came courtesy of the satellite grids the Ancients had used in orbit around the various game world planets he and Sheppard had discovered accidentally all those months ago. The really good thing was that it would all run from a single enhanced naquadah generator.
To Rodney's surprise, Carter had loved the project and that had sold it to the SGC. It had taken her less than ten minutes to get permission to go ahead and implement the plan plus an offer of whatever resources and technology Earth could send to help. Rodney tried not to be bitter, he really did, but it was hard and this kind of SGC behaviour alienated people like Zelenka who couldn't help noticing and asking the obvious and inevitable questions.
However, they'd got the green light, and Sheppard and Lorne were running teams of pilots, gradually bringing the most useful parts of broken moon close enough to the planet to be formed into the cube when they were ready.
"Zelenka to McKay." Radek's gravely voice sounded in his ear.
"Finally." Rodney ignored the growl and the muttered grumbling in Czech.
"We are ready to begin the first simulations whenever you are, McKay."
"I've been ready all day." Okay, not strictly true, but he had been ready since at least lunchtime.
The following day AG1 was sent on an unscheduled mission to collect some samples of rock that one of their long time trading allies had found during their own mining operations, and that seemed to be a kind of natural energy source.
Rodney was pissy from the start. He didn't want to go, feeling his time would be better spent working on the defence cube. The cube was all about keeping them all safe, the rocks could turn out to be a total waste of time.
"You can carry on when you get back, McKay, we'll keep the simulations running for you while you get out there and get on with some real work."
There was a twinkle in Carter's eye as she spoke, but maybe Rodney missed it.
"What!!?? I'm always doing real work."
"Well, go do some more real work and bring back these rocks so we can see if they're useful or not.
"Wouldn't a geologist be more use? I'm sure Doctor Philips would be more than happy to go."
"McKay!" John was impatient to get going.
"If we needed to know all about the mineral's structure and stratification, I'd agree, but what we need to know is its potential as a power source, and that means you, McKay." Carter's voice was firm.
Rodney grumbled some more, but minutes later AG1 was headed through the gate.
Rodney's initial examination of the rocks looked promising though, and he thought they were worth bringing back for further investigation.
John had to admit, if only to himself, that even though he hadn't wanted to go, McKay was painstakingly thorough in his assessment and although his conclusion was tentative, that was only because he couldn't test any further on the planet, not because he didn't want to succeed.
Back on Atlantis with the cube simulations still running and only in need of monitoring, McKay insisted on doing the follow up work on the rocks himself. He obviously thought the substance had potential, and as usual with McKay, there were rumblings about selfishness and glory-chasing from some of the other scientists.
However, it wasn't just some of the scientists that weren't happy with this turn of events. Carter also patently thought having done the initial assessment as asked, he would now be better occupied elsewhere and she was even less happy when the experiments to harness the potential of the mineral failed, but McKay still refused to give up.
The shouting match was truly spectacular...
"McKay would you listen for once, you can't manufacture a containment field because we don't have anything that won't react with the stuff."
"And how would you know that, Colonel, 'I've only been here two minutes, but I know everything there is to know about the Pegasus Galaxy,' Carter, hmm? I haven't been working on this even a week yet."
"Look at the chemical constituents, McKay, outside the lattice of the mineral structure they will explode spontaneously, probably even on contact with hard vacuum."
The volume was ear-splitting...
"I think I've worked that one out already or have you temporarily forgotten who I am?" McKay yelled back, his face turning puce with frustration and anger. "I just think that given a little time there has to be a way of-"
"McKay!" Carter cut him off, her volume just as loud as his. "For God's sake look at the level of investment against the possible return. Even if you can find a method of stabilising it how the hell are we going to build a plant that can process the stuff into anything worthwhile?
The curses were inventive...
"Oh my god, Carter what are you now, a dot com millionaire or something? Since when have you talked in terms of returns on investment? We're talking about scientific research here, about endless possibilities, not profit and returns." The jibe wasn't accidental, McKay read all the mission reports sent from Earth.
Carter winced, looking pained for a moment. "Did someone hijack half your brain cells and your eyes, McKay? Look around you. We have more, pure research going on here than in any facility in the Milky Way including area 51. This one doesn't fit the criteria to be a priority, based on your findings so far."
"Why not, it has as much potential as Wilson and Potter's research on the plankton on M47 95B, or Heinrich and Patel's work on the dust motes on Milesia."
"And they were both projects you and I had to fight to keep operational." Carter's voice dropped a little.
Suddenly, the entire lab was silent. Rodney stared at Carter for a long moment.
"I see..." His shoulders slumped. "So that's what this is all about. It has to be justifiable in military terms, does it? The damn stuff explodes I would have thought that ought to give you all the ammunition you need."
"McKay, that's not what I'm saying and you know it. Right now there is no way known to anyone in two galaxies to keep this kind of phosphoric compound stable outside its naturally occurring crystalline matrix. If we can't extract it we can't use it!"
"But isn't that exactly what I'm trying to say? Here in Atlantis, given time we may be able to..."
And the whole argument went round again.
In the end, though, there could only be one outcome.
After another blistering encounter the following day...
"Colonel Sheppard, get him out of here. I'm ordering this experiment dismantled and make sure you dispose of the mineral compounds correctly please."
"I don't believe this. You're throwing me out of my own lab?" Rodney's eyes were huge, surprise and hurt registering a second before anger closed them out.
Rodney saw Carter hold up a hand to forestall the already moving Sheppard, and why was he here anyway?
"Shut it down yourself, McKay, or, yes, I am."
McKay swallowed and nodded.
"I'll stay and... help." John's offer, though made in a long-suffering tone, was genuine. He kinda sympathised with McKay and sometimes he wasn't convinced Carter's agenda was entirely above board either. Maybe this was more of a military versus pure scientific research matter. John wasn't sure any new, pure science projects had been authorised since Carter's arrival. Old ones had been kept, yes, but maybe McKay was testing the water with the first thing that came along and had some potential. It was much too soon to force this kind of issue, but Rodney never had been good at choosing his battles and had a real tendency to pick the wrong ones sometimes. It used to happen with Elizabeth a lot.
"I don't need a minder, Sheppard," McKay snapped, his eyes flashing at the two military officers.
"Well that's too bad, McKay." John shifted away from the wall he was leaning against. "So where do we start?"
Apparently satisfied that her orders would be carried out, Carter turned and left the lab. The other scientists stopped gawping and went back to their work.
John moved closer to McKay and began helping him dismantle the complicated array of equipment.
"Jeeezus, McKay will you learn to pick your battles before you end up getting all the civilian projects shut down." He kept his voice low so no one else would hear.
"Congratulations on at least working out what this is all about, Colonel."
"Of course I worked it out, it's not exactly hard, but Carter's walking a fine line here, McKay, you know that as much as anyone."
"She shouldn't even be here." Well that was a bit of a shock; John tried not to look surprised. "And there's as much potential benefit, military benefit, in this project as there is in any other."
"Is there? Really? Or is it just an excuse for an argument with her. Just because she was forced to admit she needed you on the Asgard ship project, doesn't mean that she's gonna roll over and bow to your 'superior intellect' on everything, McKay. She can't. You know that."
"Oh, that's how you see it, is it? Just another excuse for McKay to bask in this glory or whatever it is that you all think is so important to me," Rodney hissed, his face turning red again.
That hadn't been what John meant at all, and Rodney knew it; John's questions had been genuine, but if the scientist wanted to play that way, John could happily oblige. "Well, isn't it?" He didn't look up from what he was doing.
The feelings coming off Sheppard were contradictory and confusing. Carter had been angry and frustrated, and Sheppard was all that too, but there was something else. Had he just jumped to a false conclusion about Sheppard? Well so what? He was fed up of having the worst motives assigned to his actions all the time. Sometimes he acted out of self-interest yes, but not always.
"What's the point in my answering that either way? You certainly aren't going to believe anything I say on the subject. You made your mind up years ago." Rodney's heart was hammering so loudly he was surprised Sheppard couldn't hear it. Not to mention that his breathing was making him sound like an elderly steam engine.
Suddenly, there was a rumbling noise followed by a loud crash. Clouds of dust billowed up accompanied by the tinkling of breaking glass and ceramics. People hurriedly backed away as the shelf by the door detached itself from the racking and fell to the floor showering half the lab in debris and detritus.
"What the hell?" Instinctively John had leaped to cover McKay, who was now standing staring at the mess with wide blue eyes.
"Oh god," McKay whispered.
"Was there anything dangerous or important on the shelf?"
Rodney was still staring at the rubble.
"McKay!" John's volume level increased, trying to get through to the shaken scientist.
"What?" Rodney turned wide panicked eyes on Sheppard. "Oh, no. It was just a storage shelf that's all."
A passing patrol appeared in the doorway looking shocked at the mess covering nearly half the lab. The other scientists looked as stunned as McKay.
"You men! Get some gear and get this mess cleaned up." Sheppard's order was brisk, but calm. "Then get a new shelf put up and this time make sure it's secure."
John turned to McKay, knowing he had to say something to lighten the atmosphere; it was just a shelf, an accident.
"And McKay, quit banging the door in a huff when you storm out."
Everyone smiled as the joke relieved a little of the tension.
One of the biggest complaints they all had was that the Atlantis doors were impossible to slam satisfactorily when storming out after a fight.
The only person not laughing was Rodney.
The lab had been cleared up hours ago and a new shelf was now firmly bolted to the wall. Rodney was alone, tinkering, pottering around, doing nothing in particular while his brain tried to make sense of everything that had happened that day.
Not the row with Carter, sadly that had been inevitable and right now Carter's opinion of him was the least of his worries. No, it was the disturbing aftermath that was occupying his thoughts and unfortunately that didn't just mean the shelf, though that was perhaps the most personally alarming.
Suddenly finding himself able to act more like Teyla or Ronon on a mission was a relatively harmless thing to happen, could even be seen as a positive thing, but bringing down an entire metal shelf that had been firmly bolted to the wall. That was something else entirely and Rodney knew it was all his doing.
However, the scene with Carter had resulted in another, not completely unforeseen consequence.
Rodney paced around the lab, glancing occasionally at the datapad he held in one hand. On it was a list of names. The names of the latest group of civilian scientists to request transfer back to Earth. Katie Brown's name was the third one down. He knew Carter had seen the transfer requests and knowing her she probably felt as bad as he did about it. They should never have argued like that in public. Sheppard had been right: it was the wrong battle and the wrong time, but common sense and most of the scientists on the list had told him they would have drawn the same conclusion from the closure of the Trellian rock project, regardless of how it had happened. Rodney had gone to each one personally and tried to convince them to stay. They were good people, his people, people the city and the expedition couldn't really afford to lose in his opinion, but they didn't want to be controlled by the military except in matters of safety. The 'cool toys' of whatever nature they all got to play with no longer made up for direct military control of the base. The SGC may see Carter as a compromise, but many of the scientists still only saw the rank and the soldier, and today's argument resulting in her ordering the base CSO to abandon a potentially valuable project because the results weren't coming fast enough had been a bridge too far.
"I want to find plants that can cure, not plants that can kill, and that's what I'll end up doing if I stay here."
"I won't let that happen, Katie, you know that."
Katie sighed and looked at him with big sad eyes.
"You can't prevent it, Rodney, today just proved that; you're as much under Carter's command as Colonel Sheppard. Doctor Weir may have suggested the project be passed to someone else so you had more time for the Asgard ship or the defence cube, but she would have listened and compromised at least. Colonel Carter only gave you a couple of days before summarily ordering the project shut down and it doesn't take a PhD to work out why."
He knew she was right and in the end he'd had no choice but to accept Katie's resignation from the Atlantis science team along with a dozen or so others.
Katie had stayed partly because of him, because of them, and he'd been trying to be a good boyfriend. He made sure he saw her at least once a week, and recently he'd been reaping the benefit of his efforts. It had been nice. Katie was gentle, easy company; he knew where he stood with her and in return for making a bit of an effort he'd been getting regular sex for the first time in so many years he didn't want to count, and in a week it would all end.
They'd already decided that although they'd enjoyed their time together, trying to stay together long distance wouldn't work for them. Rodney knew he just didn't have the commitment for that.
"I know we've decided to just be friends after I've gone Rodney, unless circumstances change, but, until then... could we...?"
It took Rodney a moment to work out what Katie meant, but when he realised he just smiled.
"Oh of course, wouldn't have it any other way. We're still us, right up until the minute you step aboard the Daedalus, if that's what you want."
Katie beamed at him. "Yes, thank-you, Rodney." She'd kissed him then, sweetly and gently and Rodney knew he was going to miss Katie... a lot.
It was all so stupid and sad and stupid and... well... just stupid. There ought to be a better way for Atlantis, but Rodney couldn't think of one anymore than Sheppard or anyone else could. At least Zelenka was staying, for now.
As he turned he caught sight of the new shelf by the door and frowned.
It had been a bad day all round, and the shelf had just been the final straw.
Somebody would realise sooner or later. Sheppard wasn't stupid and neither were Teyla and Ronon. They would put two and two together and come demanding answers soon. After all, this wasn't the first time was it? Only this time there had been no malfunctioning Ancient device to explain what was happening and Rodney was fresh out of ideas for any other explanation.
He knew something similar was happening to him. The last time he'd felt similar to this he'd been dying, but that was the strange thing. Similar being the operative word, it was similar but definitely not the same. Then, he'd been able to consciously control everything he did; now he didn't have a clue. The strongest feelings and emotions just hit him, like a punch in the guts every time, and the rest of the time he felt like he was living in a barrel of thick, sticky honey. He could feel his friends and colleagues around him, feel how they felt. He knew when they were happy, sad, angry, scared, or just plain down in the dumps, stuff he usually never even registered and if he did he just ignored it, but now it was like he had no choice. Some days it was as if everyone literally threw their emotions at him wholesale.
Then there was the shelf. He knew he'd done it. Carter had gotten him so wound up. Maybe it hadn't been the right fight to pick, but he remembered all too well a time when science team projects were his domain and his alone.
That line of thinking would get him nowhere and wasn't the topic currently up for review, either.
He hadn't meant to do anything, didn't have a clue how he had, but he knew it was definitely him. He'd been angry, frustrated, worried, Sheppard hadn't helped, and it was like it all suddenly flew at the shelf which then crashed to the floor quite spectacularly.
But how? Why? What the hell was happening to him?
How had he sheared through the bolts like that? It wasn't even as if they'd all spontaneously unscrewed or something. Some were intact, but at least four had been sheared right through.
And maybe even more important than all that...
What was he going to do?
Was he a danger to himself and the city? And what about his team? On the mission when he and John had been trapped, he may not have been able to entirely control it all, but he had at least known it was happening. He'd felt that strange disconnection, heard the weird buzzing in his ears every time something unusual had happened, but the shelf had come totally without warning.
Was he safe going off world while able to do this kind of stuff, but not able to control it? Oh god, he was going to get them all killed...
"I brought dinner." Zelenka, who else. Rodney hadn't even noticed him come in.
"Did I ask for dinner?"
His friend didn't even flinch.
"No, you did not, but I brought it anyway." Radek set the two trays down on the empty bench and poured them both a mug full of perfect black coffee.
It was the good stuff and Rodney accepted the mug without saying another word.
"Are you okay, Rodney?"
Rodney shrugged. "No."
Radek's nodded. "I thought not. Sit, eat. You should talk, but we can watch hockey or a movie if you'd prefer."
Rodney sighed and semi collapsed onto the stool in front of the tray. As his deputy Radek knew about Katie leaving so it seemed likely that all Radek was doing was trying to help him over losing his girlfriend. At least he hoped that was all it was.
"I don't feel like eating." He poked desultorily at the food.
"I know, but try. Once you get going, the food will just go down and then be all gone." Radek sounded like he was talking to a child, but Rodney couldn't bring himself to care enough to protest beyond a lopsided quirk to his lips.
The choice of dinner was a good one. The new cooks made a Pegasus version of goulash and dumplings with plenty of rich gravy, which was both tasty and easy to eat. Rodney had gotten a taste for the dish during his time in Siberia, the cook there had made it rather well and this version was close enough to remind him.
The Czech was right about the eating thing too. Once he got going the goulash started to vanish quickly.
Rodney caught Radek's smug little grin.
"Okay you were right. Seems like everyone's right but me, these days."
The blatant self-pity in that statement made Radek snort McKay-style.
"Oh, I think in the great scientific weigh scales of right and wrong you are still ahead on the being right side, McKay. Being wrong occasionally doesn't hurt either, you know, just helps convince the rest of us you're human, like us, some of the time at least."
The last was a mutter Rodney knew he was meant to hear. He humphed softly despite having to admit that Radek's presence was making him feel better.
And wasn't that just another example of something being very, very wrong: Radek's presence making things better? Since when had he been aware of presences, Radek's or otherwise?
"He's right, McKay." Ronon strode in, tray in hand, obviously having overheard Radek's last comment.
"Huh. You think?"
Rodney's teammate put down his tray and pulled up a stool.
"Yeah, I do," he said before digging into his goulash. There were two pots of blue Jell-o on Ronon's tray.
"Erm, why are you here?" Rodney had to ask.
"You weren't in the mess, we haven't eaten together in a while, so, figured it was time we did." Just like Rodney, Ronon spoke round a mouthful of food.
"Hmmf," was all Rodney could manage in response to that.
"Saw Zelenka getting two trays and figured one would be for you so... You want me to leave?"
"No." The response was faster than Rodney might have liked, but it was too late now. "Just wondered why I was suddenly so popular."
His companions exchanged knowing eye rolls and Ronon chuckled. Radek just shook his head. Sometimes Rodney just didn't get it, and there was no point in trying to explain.
"Your charm. Must be," Ronon rumbled and managed to keep a straight face only by stuffing his mouth full as soon as he'd spoken.
"Oh ha ha." Rodney looked down and realised that between Ronon's teasing and Radek's head-shaking, his goulash was all gone.
"Maybe I was hungrier than I thought."
"See." Radek grinned as Rodney reached for his blue Jell-o. They all knew the second one on Ronon's tray was for Rodney too.
"See they fixed the shelf." The observation seemed innocent enough on Ronon's part, but Rodney wasn't fooled that easily.
"Yes. It made quite a mess when it fell."
"I heard. Wonder why it did?"
"Fall? No idea, I'm just glad I wasn't standing near it at the time."
"Or anyone else." Radek's voice held a note of amused irony.
Rodney nodded. "Again, yes. I had the marines check all the other fittings to make sure they were good."
"Yes I saw, but it is strange. I don't remember noticing anything 'loose' about it before." Radek was musing out loud, but Rodney couldn't help the startled look he shot the Czech.
"Oh, and you regularly go around peering closely at the bolts holding up the shelves in the labs do you? You need to get out more, Radek."
"Of course not, McKay, but it seems like something anyone might notice. It was by the door after all, and we all go through the door several times a day."
"True, but it's also true that people get so used to seeing things, to a point that they don't really notice them."
"Some people do." Ronon had to chime in.
"Well, we aren't all super observant Dunedain are we?"
"Dune - what?"
Rodney knew Sheppard had inflicted the movies on Ronon.
"Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, dirty smelly ranger type."
Ronon still looked puzzled and Rodney rolled his eyes.
"Trust Sheppard to only do half a job. Looks like Radek and I will have to fill in the gaps he obviously left."
Ronon handed Rodney the second blue Jell-o cup and settled back on the stool, a speculative expression on his face. McKay was trying to distract him but this sounded interesting.
"In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn..."
It was almost an hour later after dropping McKay off at his quarters, where he'd been met by an anxious Katie Brown, that Ronon made his way to the little lounge where Teyla and Sheppard were both waiting.
Sheppard was off the couch the second the doors closed, an expectant look on his face.
That got him matching grins and eye rolls from his teammates.
"Uh... yeah, we are talking about McKay here, aren't we?"
"Zelenka's weird too, but yeah, McKay."
"Something's wrong, but McKay ain't talking."
"Tell us something we don't know, Ronon. What about the shelf? Did he say anything?"
"Only that it was an accident. Get the feeling he knows it wasn't, but... like I said he ain't talking."
"Do you think he's in further danger from whoever or whatever it is?"
"You mean like the shelf was a deliberate attack?" Ronon looked a little startled at John's question.
"Shelves bolted to the wall racking by marines using two inch solid steel bolts and power tools don't usually fall down so..." Sheppard shrugged his affirmative. He knew it sounded far-fetched, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to this. A link he wasn't quite getting.
Ronon looked suitably puzzled.
"But how could loosening a shelf so that it falls down be an effective attack on Doctor McKay?" Teyla voiced the puzzlement and added the cold water of logic and reason.
"I have no idea. Some kind of a threat maybe? First the shelf, next McKay. How the hell should I know? But that shelf did not just suddenly fall down because it decided today was a good day to dump its contents all over the floor."
"Could it not genuinely have been an accident?" Reason once more.
"Two inch bolts and marines with power tools," John repeated.
"The city has been through a lot recently, Colonel."
"And every other shelf we put up stayed up, unless it was subject to a direct explosion."
Ronon shrugged and Teyla looked perplexed.
"Like I said, I got the feeling McKay knows something, but..."
"Keep an eye on him."
The look Ronon gave Sheppard spoke volumes.
"When don't I?"
Sunshine, clear skies and a breeze so gentle it was little more than a caress greeted the residents of Atlantis for their 'mandatory rest day'.
For the people of Earth this was the Lantean equivalent of a perfect Spring day so almost everyone decided to make the most of the lovely weather and spend at least some of their time outside.
The bi-monthly 'Sunday' had become an integral part of life on Atlantis under Doctor Weir, and the medics of both varieties, mental and physical, had convinced the two colonels now in charge of the city to continue the practise as soon as things were reasonably well settled again.
It was why those two same colonels were presently standing side by side on a first floor balcony looking out over the busy south pier. This was the first Sunday under Carter's leadership and John had taken it upon himself to ensure that she had her Sunday too, so he'd invited her for a spell on the driving range. It also meant that he could deal with any questions and issues as they arose and dispel any wrong assumptions before they did damage.
Over on the hastily re-improvised courts to the left, Ronon was leading a team of marines against Dr Peterson's team of scientists in a hotly contested game of basketball. They had gathered a goodly crowd of fairly partisan and noisy supporters.
On the opposite side of the pier, away from and in total contrast to the noise from the courts, Teyla and Sergeant Alvarez were leading another group through what could only be the easy flowing moves of the Atlantean/Athosian/Satedan/Genii version of Tai Chi.
Feminine laughter floated up from another group almost directly beneath them. Doctors Simpson, Bryce, Keller, Samuelson, Kusanagi and a fair few others were seated on loungers arranged in a rough circle, each with some kind of needle or other such instrument in their hands, eyes focused on various pieces of craftwork on their laps. If they hadn't been some of the finest scientific minds in two galaxies John Sheppard would have called it a knitting circle. Carson had once had to endure the wrath of several of his British female colleagues when he'd referred to the group as the Atlantis Women's Institute. The poor man's life had been made a misery for weeks, but once he'd found out what the WI was, John had to admit the good doctor had had a point. The sight was more than a bit odd to say the least.
On the next balcony along from where the two colonels were standing, even the sedate and serious members of the chess club had moved their boards and pieces to tables set outside and Sheppard couldn't help grinning when he spotted Major Lorne's easel set up only a few feet away from Doctor Zelenka's chess table. Lorne had been with the SGC long enough to know Carter's attitudes.
In fact you didn't have to look too hard to see that there were a number of couples in evidence, scattered across the pier. Some were more romantically inclined than others, but it was still people taking the opportunity to spend their down time with that one special person who meant a little bit more than the rest of their colleagues and friends.
At the far end of the pier the flat smooth deck had become an improvised rink and skate park, for both roller skating and skateboarding.
One of the better skaters caught John's attention and he couldn't help but continue watching despite a sudden dryness in the back of his throat. Clad in tight jeans and a green helmet with matching knee and elbow pads, Katie Brown was turning smooth, almost lazy circles, effortlessly easy, the sun glinting off the helmet and the odd flash of red hair. As John kept on watching an all too familiar figure emerged from the walkway and glided over to join her. Skating was probably the only physical thing McKay did well. Not surprising maybe, his being Canadian and all.
John couldn't tear his eyes away as Rodney handed Katie the earphones to the 'wireless' iPod he had engineered precisely for this purpose, and he swallowed awkwardly when Rodney took Katie's hand and the two set off circling the makeshift rink. Unlike Katie and most of the other skaters, Rodney wasn't wearing any safety gear. Surprisingly at odds with his strong sense of personal preservation? Not really, at skating Rodney genuinely was that good. He didn't skate that often, but when he did John knew from experience Rodney was a joy to watch.
At his side he heard Carter's breathing hitch softly when the couple finished their second circuit and then set off down the other side of the pier before disappearing from sight round the corner of the tower. A while ago Rodney had worked out a safe circuit for skateboarding and roller staking that took people all around this section of the city making full use of the out of the way galleries and walkways that spanned the towers in graceful arcs and were perfect for skating or skateboarding. The circuit took about half an hour to complete. John and Ronon had made good use of it earlier this morning before John had had to meet Carter.
John's own reaction to Rodney and his girlfriend was something on which he preferred not to dwell. His grip tightened reflexively on the balcony rail, turning his knuckles white against the tan of his fingers. He forced them to relax and hoped Carter hadn't noticed. He wasn't Rodney's keeper and the physicist was free to date whoever he pleased.
"How long?" Sam asked quietly.
There was no way John could pretend not to know what she meant, no matter how much he might want to. He deliberately kept his voice level and above all neutral when he responded.
"A few months now. After his 'near ascension' experience he started spending more time with her." John paused and took a deep breath before going on. "She's good for him. Straightforward, not complicated."
Carter nodded and John suddenly felt a bit mean. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that Carter had her own problems and she didn't need him poking at her as well. The woman was clearly trying for neutral too, but even John could see she didn't quite make it. He hoped he was better at hiding his reactions to Rodney and Katie than she was.
"She's one of the scientists on the latest transfer list."
John sighed. "Yeah."
Rodney and Katie.
The pair had prompted a total polarity of reaction everywhere. People were either completely staggered and openly expressed their amazement that any woman could stand the man at all, let alone like him enough to have a relationship with him, or subscribed to the weird consensus found among any number of the women on staff that Rodney and Katie were cute, or that they made a 'sweet' couple. The latter was something John found it impossible to agree with. Although he really hoped McKay never, ever found out.
Glancing sideways at Carter he caught a flash of what looked like hurt cross the woman's features before they settled into an expression that was merely cross. Was Carter harbouring an attraction to McKay? John wouldn't be the only one surprised if that were the case. Everyone had always considered that relationship to be entirely one sided. Still whether she was or not, this one was definitely best headed off at the pass. There had been enough difficulty between Carter and Rodney recently after the blow up over the energy rocks project being cancelled without the guy's personal life getting in the way and clouding the issue too. John himself may not have been exactly happy about Rodney and Katie, but the scientist was entitled to a private life like anyone else, and he didn't need further issues with Carter over his choice of girlfriend or breaking up with said girlfriend either. John was trying very hard not to think about the implications of Katie's departure. Rodney would need some time to adjust to being single again surely and so would John.
"Wanna go hit some balls?" He injected as much enthusiasm into the question as he could. They both needed the distraction from McKay.
Carter followed him across the hall and out to the driving range on the opposite terrace.
An hour and a half later the two colonels were sitting out on the pier deck, the remains of their lunch scattered on two trays between them.
John was just wiping away the last crumbs of a rather good chocolate cake when he heard Rodney's familiar laugh. He and Katie emerged from the walkway still hand in hand and skated over to where they had left their things, seemingly just returning from their skating circuit.
A circuit that took half an hour at most.
John couldn't help noticing that they both had a freshly showered look about them, and if the expression in her blue eyes was anything to go by he wasn't the only one. Carter got that pinched, cross look on her face again. He had to wonder if she even realised she was doing it.
The couple talked for a minute, then Katie began scattering some cushions on the deck overlooking the ocean while Rodney skated back towards the doors behind where John and Carter were sitting.
"Rodney!" The scientist turned when he heard his name being called. "Can I have strawberry instead of peach, please?"
Rodney gestured a thumbs up to Katie then continued towards them. He stopped at the side of their table, smiling broadly.
"Hey Colonel, Colonel, or should that just be Colonels?" John and Sam rolled their eyes in unison as Rodney nodded at each in turn. The broad smile, however, didn't fade a millimetre. "I'm just off to the mess, can I get you anything?"
John suddenly felt bad as he indicated the remains of their lunch. "Hey McKay, not for me, thanks."
Carter found a more or less genuine smile then raised her nearly empty water bottle.
"Another of these if you wouldn't mind, McKay."
"Sure, I'll...er... be back in a bit then."
John nodded and Carter managed to hold on to the smile as Rodney skated off.
Rodney's ability to put arguments like the one in the lab behind him, especially when he genuinely liked a person, never failed to surprise John; it was only arguments between the two of them that seemed to last longer than a few hours, and John couldn't help but feel that might just be his fault some of the time, although he usually felt he was making a point to McKay that needed making.
"I thought you said that circuit takes about half an hour." Carter's edgy tone broke into John's thoughts.
"It does." His own voice came out flat. Katie might be leaving in a few days, but John still felt something decidedly unsettling when he thought about the pair of them being together intimately.
He desperately hoped Carter didn't push the issue.
Ten minutes later Rodney was back, still smiling and carrying two trays with lunch for him and Katie and on the corner of the one he held out to Carter was her bottle of water.
"You're welcome." He nodded to both of them. "Have a good afternoon, Colonels." With that he skated off and John's eyes narrowed behind his sunglasses as he watched Rodney hand Katie her tray and then settle down beside her on the cushions. The two were seated side by side with their backs to the pier, but John could still occasionally hear the strains of Rodney's all too familiar laugh.
Rodney sat down and opened his sandwich packet hoping his relief didn't show on his face. He knew he was being watched. He could feel the virtual heat from two pairs of eyes lasering into his back, but he resisted the temptation to turn round and look. He was entitled to enjoy his day off just as much as anyone else. He really was. Katie would be leaving this week so today and the next couple of evenings were important. Carefully and firmly Rodney pushed any feelings of guilt far off to one side and focused his attention back on Katie.
She was smiling at him and he suddenly realised he didn't have a clue what she'd just said.
He smiled back and hoped...
It seemed to be enough.
It hadn't been a bad 'Sunday' as Sunday's went. They still had some bad associations for the command staff, but Elizabeth had been quick to point out that the last thing Carson would have wanted would have been for them to abandon a practise that was one of his pet projects just because of him. They couldn't all work every single day, so a mandatory rest day once every couple of months was a good idea, despite what had happened on one occasion.
He wasn't sure if he and Carter had developed a better understanding of each other today, or not.
She obviously hadn't realised about McKay and Katie Brown and seemed more bothered by it than John had expected. It could simply be difficulty getting her head round the concept that any woman would fall for McKay, or could it be that Carter was interested herself and was now a little upset that someone else got there first? Either way Carter wasn't going to say anything and it was none of John's business so long as it didn't affect the base. How it affected John was a road he just wasn't going down. Samantha Carter as competition for McKay's friendship and affection was... no... not going there. Change tack...
She wasn't bad at golf and admitted to playing with O'Neill and Jackson and that Teal'c was better than all of them. He'd told her about Ronon's golfing in return and they'd bonded a little over the frustration of aliens who seemed to pick up in moments something it took humans years to perfect.
In many ways she was like Elizabeth had been, like himself, like anyone thrust into a new command situation. Trying hard to understand the people she had working for her without stifling or antagonising, difficult with McKay but then she knew that going in. Trying to make the necessary changes without causing resentment. Trying to make orders from an organisation in another galaxy make sense in this one. Like all of them, trying to balance military and civilian needs alike and sometimes getting it horribly wrong.
They'd all met up for dinner in the mess in the evening. Carter admitted it was the first chance she'd really had to spend any time at all with Katie Brown. John wondered why it was significant. Rodney kept his personal life pretty separate from his work life in the city. Even his team didn't really know Katie much beyond what Rodney told them, so why did Carter think she needed to?
On the up side, nothing weird had happened with McKay. Maybe the shelf had been an accident.
Thank god that was over.
So it could probably have been worse as Sundays on Atlantis went, but it didn't stop him being glad it was over.
The morning hadn't been too bad, roller skating with Katie and having sex. Sex was always good, and they'd got kind of a rhythm going now. They both knew what the other liked and the embarrassing moments were down to almost none each time. Maybe he was getting better at this whole relationship thing and Katie was very loyal and uncomplicated so... yeah, it was a shame it was going to end in a couple of days, but he thought he'd learned enough to help next time he was lucky enough to get a date with someone. Maybe he should make some notes just to make sure he had it all organised in his head.
Rodney reached for his personal laptop and spent the next few minutes typing rapidly.
It was dinner that had been the problem. He'd expected it to be, of course, and there had been no way to get out of it without looking churlish, not that that worried him normally but he didn't want to part with Katie on anything but good terms and him being a pain and crying off would have annoyed her.
Everyone had been happy and lively, full of their day's activities, and although it hadn't been upsetting, there had been too much of it for Rodney to avoid or filter out. Sensing other people's happiness to the level he was able to these days wasn't as draining as having to deal with negative emotions but it could be just as overwhelming. It was like being high on the good stuff from the infirmary and he didn't need wine when he was already half drunk on other people's euphoria.
Katie had helped at dinner though. She wasn't the most socially adept woman, but having her there, knowing she was on his side, helped to keep him grounded. Not that it was a question of sides but it just felt better knowing someone was there for him.
Not the right someone, of course, but that ship had sailed long, long ago and trying to row a boat after it wasn't fair to Katie and he was trying to be a good boyfriend...
And speaking of boyfriends...
Carter and Sheppard. He didn't think they were a couple, yet, but it certainly looked like they could be heading that way, although it begged the question about Carter and Jack O'Neill. Not that Rodney would be asking, oh no.
The secluded balcony that ran the full length of her quarters was fast becoming one of Sam Carter's favourite places. Perhaps it was years of working in labs underground that made instant access to her own private outdoor space even during work time such a pleasure.
The sea helped with the feeling too; hearing the waves as she settled down to sleep or had just snatched a few moments downtime for herself was something that was easy to get used to.
Being here in Atlantis for several weeks made it easy to see why Weir, Sheppard and McKay had all been prepared to risk everything to get the city back.
It had been a strange day, but a good one.
She still didn't feel she belonged and knew that feeling would be a long time coming, but watching the people who worked and lived here let their hair down and enjoy themselves for a while had provided some insights into her new command.
Sheppard was an enigma. Like Jack in so many ways and yet so different. A well-hidden ferocious intelligence. Rather more respect for the service than he would ever admit. The man was like an iceberg, ninety percent of him lay hidden beneath the surface. Did anyone really know John Sheppard? The answer to that question lay in the most unlikely place. If anyone did, it was McKay. It was obvious that the friendship between the two ran as deep as the one she shared with Daniel or Teal'c. Maybe you had to have experienced that kind of relationship to see it in others, and it was plain to see between the scientist and the soldier. Would it be a problem? It certainly meant adjusting some of her ideas and opinions of the people here, but General Hammond had handled SG1 and all their strangeness with grace and subtlety for years. She just hoped she could do the same.
And what of McKay himself? The man had a girlfriend, for god's sake. Okay so the relationship was soon to end unless they were going to try it long distance, but how the hell had that happened? And was it really all that surprising? Maybe not. McKay was a royal pain, but he had his positive points and there was always going to be someone willing to take the chance. Did she regret not taking hers before? The honest answer to that was probably yes... now... in retrospect. McKay had changed. It wasn't immediately obvious, but the changes were all there if you looked carefully, peeping out at the most unexpected moments.
It was hard not to feel a bit put out, cheated almost; not that she hadn't had her share of relationships, but Rodney seemed genuinely happy here and somehow she'd always assumed that if all else failed, well, there was always McKay. Only now there wasn't, and even though Doctor Brown was heading back to Earth it was obvious that whatever Rodney's infatuation with Sam had once been, it was now well and truly over. Oh, he still played the game, sometimes, but that was all it was to him now, a game, nothing more. Then there was his relationship with Sheppard. It wasn't obvious and she wasn't even sure, but Sam couldn't help wondering if once Doctor Brown was gone Sheppard might be direct competition for anyone else interested in McKay. The irony wasn't lost on her as far as that was concerned either.
Teyla was still a little intimidating, and that was hard to admit after her years dealing with so many different aliens in the Milky Way. The Athosian woman guarded her thoughts well and considered her actions carefully. On Earth she would be described as formidable and the word was appropriate. Her bonds with both Sheppard and McKay ran very deep, and with others too. At times her bright smile was almost girlish, but her eyes were those of someone years older. Eyes that had seen things no human should have to see. The Pegasus Galaxy was a hard place to exist. She knew little more about Teyla now than she had that morning, other than that she didn't like golf, loved popcorn and chocolate and had perhaps been closer to Carson Beckett than people at first realised. Nothing had been said, she'd just happened to be watching the woman when the doctor's name was mentioned, and for a second the brown eyes had been unable to hide a sadness that went beyond that for the loss of just a friend. They may not have been a couple, but that didn't mean the feelings weren't there. Sam couldn't help wondering if the feeling had been mutual.
At first Dex had seemed like an untamed lion held in check only by his respect for Sheppard, but thinking that meant you were missing a great deal. She'd read some of his history, knew about his planet, marvelled at how he'd survived for seven years as a runner. That he could fight went without saying, that he was kind and gentle, had a great sense of humour, and a willingness to try anything new at least once were things that only came out when you really watched the man. He was fiercely competitive, especially with Sheppard, fiercely protective, especially of McKay, and highly respectful, especially of Teyla. He followed Sheppard because he wanted to, which said a lot about both of them. Dex believed in the man, and John knew how fortunate he was to have Dex as his friend and at his side. His relationship with McKay at first appeared to be a total non sequitur, but it was no less genuine. The pair had an understanding that went far deeper than their surface interaction lead you to believe. Nothing in common and yet everything in common, even more irony.
Where did she fit in to all this? Would the next Sunday see Sheppard sacrificing his day off to entertain his CO or would she at least have one friend by then?
John had decided he deserved to be in on the final cube simulations after all his hard work helping to gather the asteroid fragments, so he and Teyla were heading down to McKay's lab to find out how close they really were to seeding the asteroid field for real when they heard familiar raised voices. Their favourite physicists were at it again.
The volume level and intensity of the insults hurled was common for McKay and Zelenka in scientific discussions. It was how they communicated, but this time he could hear Carter's voice in the mix as well and even though he knew she wanted to be kept in the loop on the project her actual presence in the lab bothered him a little. In his few brief discussions with her about how she intended to run the base she had stated several times that she would try to keep out of McKay's hair. They'd both chuckled a little at the hair reference, but John had been worried, adding another super genius to the mix, especially one as used to getting her own way as Carter, could be as much of a hindrance as a help.
"Oh come on, McKay, you know as well as I do that those initial power consumption calculations are flawed so the spread needs changing to these distances. If you'd done it the way I worked it out the first time then the chances are the beam wouldn't have hit the tower and you wouldn't have lost the power capability needed for the hyperdrive when the shield had to close through the beam."
"You don't know that! You can't know it. It's all theory and speculation, despite the math. There was no way even with the city sensors to get that accurate a reading of the power of the beam versus the mass of the asteroid, and no way Major Lorne could have had it travelling any slower."
"It has nothing to do with the speed the asteroid was moving at the time and you know it. It's the timing and variables around the beam slicing through the asteroid. In one set of my calculations you wouldn't even have needed to shut down the shield to get the power to take off if you look."
Rodney looked. The math was correct.
"You have a point, possibly."
Rodney could see it all looked perfect, but if it was so obvious now why hadn't it been obvious then? He shook his head.
Carter looked smug. It was the same smug expression Rodney recognised from his own features. However, the implications of what she had just said were bouncing round the room like hard little rubber balls, and of course that was the moment Sheppard and Teyla chose to enter the lab.
Their faces made it plain they'd heard every word.
Sheppard's eyes were hard and flat and Rodney didn't have to see Teyla's face to know that her brown eyes were lasering into his skull as if looking for answers he knew he couldn't give.
Was he responsible for what had happened to Elizabeth and all the other people that were injured when the beam it the tower?
Had he and Radek been so wrong?
It was possible, he supposed.
"Okay, so it's possible your way might and I mean might have worked better, but you weren't there at the time. We didn't exactly have the luxury of several days to sit and do the math, and anyway that doesn't change the fact that the spacing on the cube needs to be in this range, depending on the dimensions of each individual piece, not that range."
Rodney kept talking because he knew if he stopped to consider for a second Carter's implications would bring him to his knees.
Carter didn't respond. She'd just looked at the two new faces in the lab and realised how what she'd said must have sounded to Sheppard and Teyla.
There was a rushing sound in John's head and the world seemed to narrow to a single laser focus. He started to advance on McKay, then stopped.
Rodney was standing, staring wide eyed at Carter, his mouth open but for once no sound was coming from it.
"Is it true?"
"I... I..." McKay stammered.
"Come on, McKay. Is it true? Did you cause what happened to Elizabeth and Ronon and all the others?
"I don't know! There's no way to tell." Rodney was gripping the edge of the workbench in a white-knuckled grip.
"Colonel..." Carter knew she had to speak up.
Sheppard ignored her.
"How do you mean there's no way to tell? Colonel Carter here seems pretty convinced." John's was forcing himself not to advance on the stricken scientist.
"I mean there is no way to tell if we could have known then what we know now, if the data was even available, and, anyway, there wasn't enough time. We didn't exactly have days to gather data and make the necessary adjustments to our calculations, or have you forgotten that we were literally working on minutes and seconds not hours and days."
"Of course I haven't forgotten, but how many seconds would it have taken when Lorne was dragging that hulking great piece of space rock towards the planet to look at alternatives and make sure we had enough power."
"Probably not that many, but I didn't have precise calculations then regarding the actual strength of the beam, all I could do was extrapolate based on the shield drain. We've salvaged the damn satellite since then, Colonel!"
"Isn't that just an excuse?" John was shouting now.
"No it's a fact," Rodney shouted back, his blue eyes wide and flashing. "There is no way of knowing if all the additional data could have been available at the time."
"No, of course not, of course there isn't..."
Teyla had a hand on John's arm although her own eyes were dark and fixed on McKay. Anyone who knew her could tell that she too had strong feelings on the issue.
"Sheppard," Carter tried again, but John still wasn't listening.
"Meanwhile Elizabeth's lying in the infirmary with a broken brain!"
Rodney's grip on the edge of the workbench tightened as the force of John's anger came crashing down over him.
"I know that, Colonel." There was no real volume or venom in the tone anymore. Rodney knew that if he lost the support of the furniture he'd end up on the floor. John's anger was making him feel sick. How could the man even begin to believe that he would do anything to hurt Elizabeth, of all people?
"Colonel Sheppard!" Carter's voice rose above whatever it was that John was saying now. Rodney could see Sheppard's lips moving, but the sound wasn't registering above the throbbing in his head and the need to concentrate on continuing breathing.
John finally subsided and glared at his CO, eyes hard, jaw clenched and fixed, challenge obvious in every line of his body.
"Colonel Sheppard, I don't know anything, certainly no more than McKay, we were just theorising. McKay's right, there is no way of knowing. My calculations were based on the whole of the data. Both what we had at the time and the new data we've gathered since. We have no way of knowing how much of it was available either before or at the precise moment you realised you didn't have enough power..." She trailed off, the look in Sheppard's eyes stalling even the mighty Sam Carter.
"But that's not the point, is it? The point is that, McKay here didn't even check for other possibilities..."
"It was the only theory we had. There wasn't time, you know that, you were there..."
John did know that and he also knew that what he was saying was perhaps unfair, but if Elizabeth hadn't been injured then maybe nothing would have changed, Carter wouldn't need to be here, most of the scientists wouldn't be thinking of quitting, so the idea that what had happened to Elizabeth could have been avoided if...
All John could think was that he'd been down this road before with McKay.
Suddenly John wondered if the strange change in McKay's behaviour was his way of trying to make up for his carelessness. Part of him knew it was probably far from the case, but another part of him was pointing out that in an odd way it was something McKay would do. He did have a tendency to over-compensate sometimes.
"Colonel, perhaps we should leave Colonel Carter, Doctor McKay and Doctor Zelenka to their simulations and go and see how Ronon is getting on with Major Lorne." Teyla's hand on John's arm tightened and she began to draw him away from the scientists.
John looked from his CO to his so-called friend and finally to Teyla. Should he back down and accept that this was simply a scientific debate, give McKay the benefit of the doubt and let it go? Blaming the scientist wouldn't help Elizabeth that was for certain and Elizabeth herself would be the last person to blame McKay without direct proof, but right now it was too hard to just let it go. He nodded once in response to Teyla and the pair left the lab.
No one spoke for a while after they'd gone.
"I'll talk to him, McKay," Carter said softly, dropping a hand onto McKay's shoulder.
Rodney snorted. "You can try, but I wouldn't waste your breath."
"Hey, I spent years dealing with Jack and Daniel, remember?"
Rodney looked sceptical. Sheppard was the only person he knew who was as stubborn as he was.
"Why did they have to pick that moment to walk in?"
"Murphy's law, McKay. Believe me, if there was one second I really didn't want Jack or Daniel or Cam in the lab, that was always the second they came through the door."
"But what if you're right? What if..."
"McKay!" Carter's tone firmed and the fingers on his shoulder tightened.
"People like us can't afford to second guess. There isn't time. Whether the math we have now proves there was an alternative isn't the point. The math you had in your hands then is correct. I've been over it, remember. The plan was good and you had almost no time to achieve what you did. These calculations are the result of several days of solid work by all of us using data gathered from more sources than you had at your disposal. We can't go back to see if it was available then, so... Shall we?" Carter indicated the simulation program and they went back to work.
It only took a couple of hours for the three scientists to confirm that Rodney's off the wall idea would actually work
Carter left them half an hour later, still concerned.
It didn't take a genius to work out that neither McKay nor Zelenka was at their sparkling best. They carried on working, but in a subdued silence rather than amidst an endless stream of sharp, sarcastic banter about anything and everything that came to mind.
It was Radek who broke the silence.
"Do you think she's right?" he queried softly.
"What about?" Rodney knew he was simply delaying the inevitable.
"Everything. The calculations on the weapon energy and the shield drain. Whether or not we..." Radek faltered. It was no secret that he had a soft spot for Elizabeth Weir. It wasn't the serious crush he was often accused of having, but he respected Doctor Weir and maybe he did like her a little more than he liked to admit.
"Whether or not we were responsible for what happened to Elizabeth?"
The Czech nodded, his blue eyes behind the thick glasses wide with worry and fear.
Rodney sighed softly. "I think it all looks right, yeah, but... honestly? Unless you happen to have a handy time machine tucked away somewhere I see no way in which we can ever really know. When I told Sheppard I had no more power to give him I genuinely believed I hadn't."
"At that precise moment you didn't." Radek may be worried but his voice was steady with the conviction that what he had just said was true.
"Precisely. I wasn't exactly in a position to go back to first principles and re-examine the variables we'd used right back at the start, was I? Sam's theory would seem to indicate that if I'd done it her way I would have had the power we needed. Would it have actually been enough to avoid dropping the shield? There's no way of proving."
Radek nodded thoughtfully. "Unless we can get more information on the actual strength of the beam from the dead satellite than we have now, but we all agree with Simpson that all we are measuring is a kind of echo effect that makes sense in terms of our original calculations, but may not be entirely accurate."
"Exactly." Now it was Rodney's turn to nod.
"If we could get the actual power readings on the beam rather than having to extrapolate from the echo and the beam's drainage rate on the shield, then the future effect of closing the shield through the beam might have been apparent, and not caused us to drop unexpectedly out of hyperspace like we did. Well, we may not have gotten right to where we were headed, but we would have known just how far we could get, before we just fell out of the fold."
Rodney paused for a long consideration before going on.
"There's just no way of knowing for sure without the aforementioned time machine so..." His voice was quiet and resigned. "I guess we'll never know."
Radek looked at him sharply: not knowing was a big problem for Rodney. The man wasn't far wrong when he bragged about knowing almost everything about everything. It was his ability to pick up and remember the most bizarre facts and pieces of information and then apply them in the field that made him who and what he was. Radek knew no one else with the ability to come up with such brilliant and practical schemes under such immense pressure, and make them work. Colonel Sheppard had a similar ability to think outside the box, but often he needed McKay to hone his ideas and put them into practise. It was this unique ability the pair had that had rescued the expedition and saved all their lives so many times. Radek sighed and nodded.
"The colonel and Teyla did not react well to being told that what happened could have been avoided.
Rodney's face went flat. His eyes were suddenly dull and oddly expressionless, as if he had just put on a mask.
"I can't say I'm surprised." His voice was flat too.
Radek knew that the issues that had once come between McKay and the colonel were resolved, but the colonel did sometimes seem a little too ready to believe the worst, rather than the best of McKay.
He dragged his mind back to the present. Rodney was speaking again.
"He and Elizabeth are close, so he's bound to be angry at whoever caused her to be hurt, and I caused her to be hurt, or at least there's a strong chance I did."
"It was both of us, Rodney. I was as responsible for the calculations as you, and it was I who checked all the coding."
"I'm still Chief of Science." Rodney's counter placed any blame he saw squarely on his own shoulders
This was something Rodney and the colonel had in common. They both shouldered far too much responsibility when things went wrong. Rodney might shout and rant and moan at his scientists about their incompetence in the labs, but he was a firm believer in the buck stopping with him, despite his frequent protests that 'it wasn't his fault.' Radek had seen him protect younger and more inexperienced scientists from any hint of blame too many times to think otherwise.
Radek's lips compressed as his head went on one side when he shrugged.
"At least Colonel Carter was happy to come to our aid," he mused softly.
Rodney almost grinned.
"Starting to see what I mean about her now?"
Radek shrugged again. "We'll see."
Rodney rolled his eyes.
"Do you plan on doing anything about all of this?" Radek had to ask.
"I plan on getting this defence cube up and running as soon as possible and carrying on. After all this time, if Sheppard really thinks I would hurt Elizabeth, deliberately or otherwise, then there's little I can do to change his mind. Time machine, remember? We don't have one." McKay's voice was firm and just a touch defiant.
Radek was a little taken aback by that response. He was a bit surprised McKay was still in the lab and not chasing after Sheppard, calculations in hand, proclaiming his innocence. The scientist had an inherent need to prove he was right all the time after all, but on the other hand, there was no getting away from the fact that this time Sheppard would simply have to have faith. Radek profoundly hoped he wasn't underestimating John Sheppard.
However, he was gathering more and more proof that his decision to stay on Atlantis to work with Rodney was the correct one, despite his refusal to admit to actually having made any such decision yet.
McKay tapped the computer screen. "Work, shall we?"
Teyla hauled John down the corridor and into a vacant room of indeterminate purpose.
"I think it would be a good idea if you were to take a few moments, Colonel, before you either say or do something you may regret later." Her voice was quiet and even, but there was steel in the tone.
"I..." John was about to complain, but he cut himself off and reached for some semblance of his usual control.
"It is okay to rant, Colonel. I am your friend; I will not hold anything you say here against you."
"I just can't believe he did it again."
Teyla sighed. It was as bad as she'd feared. John's tendency to immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion about Rodney sometimes truly defeated her. The humour aspect had worn off long ago. She understood the colonel's desire not to feed Rodney's ego, but occasionally he went too far and she found it wearying trying to hold the friendship between the two on a level.
"John, did you not listen to what Colonel Carter said? Rodney probably did not do anything again."
"I heard what she said, Teyla, but..."
There was no use arguing with him in this mood, Teyla knew. Sometimes John's own blindness to himself was as bad as Rodney's. Right now all she could hope to do was keep the situation contained until either the facts emerged and demonstrated Rodney's innocence, or time and necessity pushed the two men into resuming their usual relationship.
"Then perhaps you should believe her. Colonel Carter has no reason to lie."
She watched as John took several deep breaths and visibly got a hold of himself, wondering if he would ever work out the reason for the volatility of his reactions towards his friend, if he even realised they were volatile at all. She hoped he would voice his feelings out loud now and 'get them out of his system' as Carson would have said, but that was not the colonel's way.
Sheppard shook himself and stood away from the bench he had been leaning against.
"Let's go check on Ronon, shall we?"
It was late evening when Rodney made his way to the infirmary, a flask of coffee in one hand and his laptop in the other.
He crossed the main ward to where Doctor Keller sat gazing at a screen.
"Anything I should know, Doctor?"
Tired blue eyes looked up at him from out of a pretty face.
"There's been no change, Doctor McKay. Doctor Philips has been sitting with her for the last couple of hours."
"I'll take over from her then." He indicated the flask and laptop.
"Of course." Keller nodded.
Rodney didn't dislike the young doctor; it was simply that she wasn't Carson. Okay, so that was kind of stating the obvious, but for Rodney it was an all-important obvious. The lack of Beckett's presence in the infirmary made it an uncomfortable place for the physicist these days. He went there only when he had to after missions, and of course for the reason he was here now, to sit with Elizabeth.
"Well good night, Doctor."
"Goodnight, Doctor McKay."
Keller's eyes seemed even more tired as she returned them to the computer screen.
Rodney walked to Elizabeth's private side room and quietly slipped in through the door.
Doctor Mary Philips looked up from where she was reading quietly and nodded. A few seconds later she marked the page and stood, placing the heavy book on the table at the bedside. She left then, her murmur of "goodnight, Doctor McKay" barely reaching Rodney's ears before he was alone in the room with the ancient scanner, the bleeping Earth equipment and the unmoving form of one of his closest friends.
"Hey there, Elizabeth," he spoke softly as he sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee before opening the laptop and bringing up his notes on the day's events in the science departments.
They all did it. Carter was in charge now yes, but for most of the original expedition members, Elizabeth would always really be the boss, the leader, the one to whom they came and told everything. If Carter was aware of what they did, she never said, and her approval was neither needed nor sought.
Quietly, Rodney updated Elizabeth on the day's progress in the labs, added in some extra stuff from a couple of life sciences projects and a promising report from a couple of the linguists. Language was her thing after all, so Rodney always tried to keep her fully up to date on what that particular department was up to.
He told her about his chat with Radek and how he hoped it meant progress on that particular front and finished with a couple of anecdotes that were somewhat amusing.
"Like I've said before, I don't know what's gonna happen when you wake up." Rodney always said when, never if. "But I don't think you're gonna be happy if even more of the key minds working here have left because I couldn't persuade them to stay in spite of the SGC and friends. Anyway, Katie's gone now and I... well I do miss her... wish I'd not messed about so much at first then we'd have had longer but I can't deny it's nice not to have to consider how she'd feel about something before I agree to it and at least she'd gone before..."
Rodney's eyes were very blue as he took a deep breath and moved on to the next item on the agenda. Elizabeth had to know, he'd decided that earlier and it was better that she find out from him.
"Also, like I said, the defence cube looks like it will be a success, but I think you ought to know there's a good chance I screwed up again, big time. I didn't mean to. Well obviously you'd know that anyway, but it looks like I did and..." His voice faltered and it was a minute and a few more deep breaths before he went on, "I'm probably responsible for what happened to you. I'm sorry, you know I'd never do anything deliberately to hurt you, ever, but I overlooked some information we might have had when we were doing the power calculations for the beam and the shield and if I hadn't well... things might have been different and you wouldn't be here. There's no way to tell now of course because we'd need to go back in time and obviously we can't do that, but I just wanted you to know I'm sorry, so, so sorry. If we could go back in time I would and I'd make sure I got it right because seeing you like this... it's killing me as much as losing Carson. I can't do anything, can't change it and I should be able to. I should be able to fix it all..."
Rodney's quiet voice broke again and he ran out of words.
A silent figure slipped from the doorway and vanished into the corridor.
"I'm sorry." Without realising, the distressed scientist had taken hold of Elizabeth's hand. When had that happened? Rodney genuinely had no idea but he gave it a gentle squeeze before placing it back on the covers.
"Do you mind if I still stay?" There was no answer of course. "I hope you don't mind. I mean I think I'd know if you somehow... if you wanted me to go so..." He picked up the heavy book Doctor Philips had left on the bedside table. "Now where had she got to?" He found the faint pencil mark. "Ah yes, here we are.
While the couples were arranging themselves and the musicians tuning up, Pierre sat down with his little partner Natasha was perfectly happy; she was dancing with a grown-up man, who had been abroad. She was sitting in a conspicuous place and talking to him like a grown-up lady. She had a fan in her hand that one of the ladies had given her to hold. Assuming quite the pose of a society woman (heaven knows when and where she had learned it) she talked with her partner, fanning herself and smiling over the fan."
Rodney's quiet voice took up the tale where his colleague had left off.
It was gone midnight when Teyla's diminutive figure slid quietly into the room.
Rodney was instantly wary, watching for signs of anger or hostility after the revelations in the lab earlier, but there were none. Teyla was her usual serene, gently smiling self.
"I will take over now, Rodney. You go and get some sleep."
"Yeah, okay." Rodney marked the place in the text with the pencil they had found and kept by the bed purely for that purpose, and stood. He looked down at the silent figure, "Goodnight, Elizabeth, I'll see you tomorrow, I hope."
Teyla took his place, looking up at him nodding and smiling kindly at him once more.
"Goodnight, Rodney, I will see you tomorrow."
"Yeah, night, Teyla."
Rodney walked out of the infirmary quickly and headed straight for his quarters. He was tired, it had been a long day, but he knew sleep would be a long time coming. There was so much going round and round in his head that it was almost an hour later before he started to question how the hell he'd known Elizabeth didn't want him to leave. How could he have been so sure? How did he know to trust Teyla's smile? How did he know that she genuinely wasn't angry with him, or blaming him for what happened to Elizabeth?
Normally he'd be avoiding all of his team like the plague by now, but tonight with Teyla he'd known it wasn't necessary. In the past he'd never been sure and assumed she sided with John when he and John had a serious argument but she'd always seemed genuine, and recently, after the whole near ascension thing, it had got much better, but sometimes he still wasn't really sure. Only tonight he was.
Of course thinking of Teyla led inevitably to thinking of Sheppard and that set Rodney's mind running in ever decreasing circles.
There was a familiar pattern to his serious disagreements with McKay. They blew up over something or other, shouted a lot, Rodney got insulting, John reciprocated. They avoided each other, sometimes for days, until something forced them back into working together, at which point their natural chemistry and compatibility asserted itself over their anger and they were soon back to being buddies. Sometimes it took a little longer, more than one off world mission, or the eventual intervention of one of their teammates to resolve things, but the end result was always the same.
Nothing was ever discussed, or talked through. They just got on with their jobs until things came right between them again. This recent bust up was no different.
Technically, Lorne was in charge of shifting the pieces of asteroid currently floating in orbit above their heads, and the priority now given the defence cube project precluded AG1 going on any off world missions until it was finished, so there was no need for John to be in McKay's company at all. No, really, there wasn't.
Of course John's avoidance tactic was made easier by the fact that it was mutual. The scientist made no effort to seek him out to try to talk, or self justify in McKay's case, but Rodney was extremely busy so, no surprise there.
John arrived at the gym early for his additional sparring session with Teyla, but she was already there.
"John." She nodded at him, her dark eyes shrewd and assessing.
"Teyla." John nodded in return and then stepped out onto the mats. He was even less in the mood for discussion today than usual. All he wanted was to get the session over with then he could go back to brooding in an out of way part of the city.
They worked in silence for about half an hour. John knew it wouldn't last, but Teyla waited until she had John pinned securely on the mat before she spoke again. "I take it you have made no attempt to talk to Rodney since yesterday."
"And you have not spoken with Colonel Carter about the conversation in the lab either?"
It was phrased and inflected as a question, but John knew damn well it was a statement.
"That'd be a no too."
Teyla eased back and John climbed slowly to his feet.
"Then might I suggest that if you refuse to talk to Doctor McKay until the situation absolutely demands it, that you at least speak with Colonel Carter and let her explain? Before she notices just how long this situation can go on for and decides to speak to you herself."
Teyla's words left no doubt in John's mind that she'd already spoken with Carter. He wondered who'd instigated the conversation.
"Teyla, did you rat me out... to Carter?"
He tried the puppy eyes, but it was last resort and he knew he had no hope with Teyla.
"No, John. I did what anyone left wondering about what we heard yesterday would sensibly do. Knowing that trying to talk to Rodney would not be easy, and that I may spend a great deal of time getting nowhere, I went instead to Colonel Carter, and asked her to clarify what we had heard and explain. She did. Clearly and in depth. As a result of her explanation I now understand what was being discussed in the lab and where Doctor McKay's actions fit in regard to what happened when Elizabeth was injured."
"Carter defended Rodney?"
John winced at his slip. He was much too used to referring to the scientist by his first name in his own head and it slipped out sometimes even when he was furious with the man. He was also surprised at the idea that Carter would defend McKay willingly and without qualification. The relationship between the two seemed antagonistic at best these days.
"John you need to go and speak to one or the other of them yourself. I will not tell you what Colonel Carter said to me, but I will tell you that she will not tolerate you and Rodney behaving in this manner in the same way that Doctor Weir used to. And I suspect that if you think about that, it is something that you already know."
"Teyla, Colonel Carter may be my commanding officer, but she can't order me to 'like' someone. Not even the US military is that all powerful."
For a few seconds Teyla's face was sad.
"I do not think this is an issue of liking, John, it is an issue of understanding, of allowing yourself to understand..."
The intelligent brown eyes fixed on John made him squirm for a long moment.
Teyla had this dreadful habit of cutting through all his dissembling to the heart of the matter, and making him face the facts he was trying so desperately to avoid. The only other person who had ever been able to do it like this had been his mother. Life was very unfair to John Sheppard sometimes. He nodded. Right now it was safer than speaking.
"So you will talk to Colonel Carter then?"
Suddenly, John had had enough of this. Teyla was his teammate, and his friend, not his mother. He was a big boy now, capable of handling his own relationships with his colleagues; he didn't need to be told what to do and who to talk to.
"Look, Teyla, it's not exactly appropriate for me to go questioning my superior officer like that. You can do it because you aren't from Earth. I can't, because she's my CO. Now are we sparring some more, because if not there's plenty of other stuff I could be doing you know."
This time the sigh was both long and loud, and John had a sinking feeling this was probably going to hurt, a lot.
It really was beautiful here. Her first visit hadn't given her chance to appreciate it properly, but with the sun sparkling off the waves and the strange blues, greens, oranges and browns of the towers and spires shining in the same sunlight it. The place was almost like something out of a fairy tale
She could see why even McKay would protect this place and these people with his life if necessary.
Not something she'd ever thought she'd say about Rodney McKay. Self-sacrifice and McKay were not words that went together in the same sentence. Well, they didn't used to, but now? Now she was just surprised by the infuriating man every single day.
It was hard to admit it, but these days he sometimes reminded her more of Daniel than the arrogant, unpleasant man she used to know.
She'd read the mission reports and the personnel reports before, and it was part of her job now, but reading something in the abstract and being confronted with it on a daily basis were two very different things.
These people didn't just respect McKay for his intelligence, which was unquestionable, they genuinely seemed to like him too, and that was the real puzzler. Despite the changes, McKay still didn't strike her as being all that likeable.
McKay had friends though, real friends.
Friends like Teyla Emmagan.
The Athosian woman had come to her the previous evening and asked if they might speak privately.
Carter had been intrigued at first and then surprised. She was a little embarrassed about that now. She'd met enough 'aliens' in her time to know that she should never underestimate them. Teyla's people may be nomadic farmers, but the woman handled the technology of both Atlantis and Earth with consummate ease and obviously had little difficulty understanding the gist of what the scientists said in briefings. Therefore, it was a mistake to consider her as little more than a pretty face that could bring the toughest marines to their knees in seconds. Elizabeth Weir had made Teyla her number two on the base, and she had the respect of everyone here, that was obvious.
Sheppard had told her almost on day one that...
"Bad things happen in the Pegasus Galaxy when we forget to include the native perspective."
"That sounds like the voice of experience talking, Colonel."
"It sure is, Colonel."
Colonel Everett had readily admitted his own mistake with Teyla after the first siege and Stephen Caldwell, another experienced SGC colonel, was equally quick to praise both the Pegasus natives Sheppard and Weir had on the command team.
So, perhaps it really shouldn't have been surprising after what had happened yesterday that Teyla should want an explanation from her, or to hear her side of the matter at least.
It had been an interesting discussion.
"Colonel Carter, may I speak with you a moment?"
Sometimes Teyla reminded her of Teal'c in a way that was almost painful. She had that same mix of serene formality that either made you feel totally at peace or mildly uncomfortable.
"Of course, come in Teyla, sit down."
Teyla came in and sat gracefully.
"What can I do for you?" One thing Carter had learned in the short time she'd known this lady was that diplomat or not, she appreciated directness.
"I would like to talk to you about what happened in the lab earlier today, with Doctor McKay and Doctor Zelenka."
"Ah... Okay, go ahead."
"We have grown accustomed to the two doctors' style of discussion here in Atlantis." Teyla smiled and Carter couldn't help but chuckle.
"I bet. They are kinda unique, but loud assertive scientific debate in the labs isn't that unusual."
Teyla's smile grew. "Yes. We understand this and appreciate the nuances that tell us how serious the problems are: tone, volume, severity of insults, all that is part of how these two men, and other scientists, communicate and is therefore part of all our daily lives. It is not unusual, as I'm sure you've noticed, for such discussions to begin in the labs and then migrate to wherever the scientists are going next, be it the mess hall, one of the lounges, the jumper bay or even off world."
Carter nodded, remembering her own debates with Daniel and other scientists at the SGC, remembering how Jack would often enter the mess, take one look at a table of loudly discussing geeks and deliberately choose to sit as far away from them as possible. She'd soon learned not to be insulted.
Teyla was speaking again. "So it is not the tone or volume of today's debate that is the issue, but the subject matter."
Carter wasn't surprised.
"It seemed that you were implying that Doctor McKay was responsible for what happened to Doctor Weir and the others. Is that the case? I find it hard to believe that Rodney would deliberately harm anyone, especially Doctor Weir, but could he have done it by accident?"
Carter sighed and took a deep breath before replying. This was a tricky one and Teyla patently wanted to believe the best of McKay, but she wanted an honest and accurate reply too.
"What was said in the lab was all theory, Teyla. I think you understand that already"
"I don't think McKay would hurt anyone intentionally either, but a by product of that kind of science under pressure can be that there are casualties just like there are in a war."
Teyla nodded again.
"People not understanding the full extent of what scientists mean in discussions like the one we had today, and therefore jumping to the wrong conclusions is always one of the risks scientists take by allowing others in on their discussions. A civilian listening to a bunch of soldiers discussing acceptable losses in war would be horrified at what they heard, yeah?"
Once more Teyla nodded. "Yes, I understand, Colonel. My father told me I would have to have those kinds of conversations once I became leader of my people and he was not wrong, so I am familiar with what you mean."
Carter was relieved; this was going to be easier than she had first thought.
"The honest answer to your question is that I raised a possibility today that Doctor McKay and Doctor Zelenka didn't think of at the time you were trying to escape from the Asuran beam. Now, there may be many reasons for that, the obvious and most likely one being that at the time, the data that caused me to think the way I did wasn't available to them, and so neither was the option I came up with. There is of course another possibility, that they missed the data and so didn't think of my option, but, and here is where the crux of the problem really is, there's absolutely no way to know for certain one way or the other.
I honestly believe that if they'd had all the data I had to work from, back then, the alternative I came up with would have been just as obvious to them, but we'll never know because we can't go back to look, therefore what I raised will always be a doubt. How big a doubt depends on how much you trust Doctor McKay and Doctor Zelenka. How thorough and rigorous you believe they usually are in their work."
Teyla had been serious all through Carter's explanation, but now she smiled suddenly.
"Doctor McKay is enthusiastic and sometimes prone to taking risks himself with Ancient technology because of that enthusiasm. However, it has been my understanding and observation that in his day-to-day scientific experimentation in the labs he is the most thorough and rigorous of all, even including Doctor Zelenka sometimes, which is why they make such a good pair. What one misses the other sees and vice versa."
"So I take it you agree that it's unlikely they would have missed the data if it'd been available." Carter wasn't sure why she wanted confirmation, but for some reason she needed Teyla to believe that she hadn't been out to make McKay look bad at all.
"I do, Colonel Carter. Doctor McKay is many things, but never deliberately negligent or even accidentally so, except with himself sometimes. His experience here has made him a very careful man with other people's lives."
Teyla's words were like a punch to the jaw, reminding Carter of the circumstances under which she and McKay had first met.
Teyla didn't miss the reaction and inevitably the eyebrow went up even though the query was never made out loud.
"McKay's changed since he's been here."
"You are not the only person from your world to make that observation, Colonel Carter, but is that not the case for all of us? Would you have expected Doctor McKay to stay the same?"
The woman was just Teal'c in a female body.
Carter decided there and then she had to get the two to meet. At first she'd thought that Ronon was Sheppard's Teal'c and there was some truth in that, but Teyla had the Jaffa's ability to ask those searching questions that made you face up to your assumptions and prejudices, even the ones you were so used to that you forgot you had.
Carter's head tipped to one side and there was a long pause before she replied.
"Honestly? Intellectually of course I knew he would change, I mean after what you people have been through, who wouldn't, but emotionally... I guess I'm surprised. Rodney was someone who I always thought I had pegged and now..."
"You find the changes in him unsettling."
Damn the woman, and why the sudden need to confide all this to a relative stranger?
"Yeah, in a way I guess I do. I probably shouldn't, but first impressions of McKay can be hard to shake. Maybe I should have shaken them by now."
Teyla grinned. "He is an interesting man especially on first meeting, perhaps I was lucky."
Carter's turn for a querying expression now. "Lucky?"
"Rodney, Doctor McKay, was his usual self when my people and I first came here and we did not understand him at all. However, it was only a matter of days before I saw the 'real Doctor McKay' for myself, and realised that much of what I didn't understand about him I perhaps didn't need to understand in order to see who and what type of man he truly was."
Carter had to think for a minute to place the event Teyla spoke about. It took a minute or so and then she nodded.
"Some kind of energy being."
"Yes. There had been a lot of speculation about Doctor McKay and the personal shield device, much of it centring on his perceived cowardice. I believe Colonel Sheppard got it right though, when he used Doctor McKay's actions as an example to me of something he called a 'Hail Mary'. Doctor McKay has managed many such 'Hail Marys' since that first one."
It was then Carter realised she was being oh so gently reminded that several people here knew McKay much better than she did, and that she was perhaps very politely being told to adjust her attitude to the scientist.
Carter had seen Teyla in action in the gym. McKay had some powerful friends these days. The question was... was Colonel Sheppard one of them? He'd been very quick to jump on McKay when he'd heard the discussion in the lab, and he hadn't given the man any chance to explain. Was Elizabeth Weir the reason? That would be ironic if it were the case. Maybe she'd been mistaken about Sheppard's interest in McKay, was it actually Sheppard and Weir, a mirror image of her and Jack. She pushed the rising pain engendered by that thought aside and decided to see if Teyla would give a little about Sheppard.
"And yet Sheppard was very quick to blame Rodney for what happened to Doctor Weir when he realised the implications of what we were discussing in the lab." When she thought about it later, Teyla's reply shouldn't have surprised her.
"Do you not have history with close friends that you are sometimes unable to put aside so that it comes to the fore at the most inconvenient times?"
If she'd been the screaming sort, Carter would have screamed in frustration right then.
"Sheppard and McKay?" She phrased it as a question but didn't really expect to get an answer.
"Theirs is a unique relationship, Colonel. One that I am sure you will come to understand, with time."
Teyla smiled and stood. Carter felt as if she was the one being dismissed, even though it was her office.
"Thank-you for your time, Colonel Carter. This discussion has been a great help."
Even the slight bow was reminiscent of Teal'c, and then Teyla was gone, striding across the control room as though she belonged there, which of course she did.
The more Carter pondered Teyla's words the more intricate the puzzle that was Atlantis and its citizens became.
There was little point in continuing to refer to the core of the people here as an expedition team. They might have started out as one when they stepped through the gate three and a half years ago, but this wasn't an expedition anymore. It was a permanent population. Many of whom were prepared to accept military command of the base, against what may be their better judgement, because they called this city home.
McKay as much as anyone.
To her it was a job, to him it was home. Sheppard too.
It was a long time since Sam Carter had felt this much of an outsider.
John and Rodney spent the next few days actively avoiding each other. They should have found a better way of dealing by now, and it saddened Rodney that they hadn't, but it was easier for both of them to just wait until something pushed them past the badness.
There was a pattern to it, an ebb and flow to their friendship that neither of them seemed able to break. It was as if the friendship would get so far and then something always happened to force a reset and make them start over. It wasn't always Rodney's fault either, sometimes it was Sheppard who just went too far and then it was Rodney doing the injured party, avoidance routine.
Carson had always said they were as bad as each other and no matter how much Rodney may not want to admit it, this kind of behaviour proved the doctor had been right.
Oh well, something would force them to acknowledge each other sooner or later, until then there was the defence cube to get up and running.
Theory and simulations were complete and today was the day they put it all into practise and built the cube in space over the city.
Maybe then they could get back to a normal routine and fully resume off world missions again. Maybe that would lessen the tension he felt almost constantly these days. Maybe if he got away from some of these people for a while he might not be so ultra-conscious of them when he had to be in the city.
Was there anyone in Atlantis who wasn't worried to death about something utterly trivial?
Rodney shook his head and returned his attention to his laptop screen. Work was the only cure, and he was never short of that.
"Zelenka to McKay."
"Go ahead, Radek."
"We are ready."
"Okay, leave Simpson with the generator and meet me in the control room"
"On my way."
He tucked the laptop under his arm and headed for the transporter to the control room.
When he got there the atmosphere hit him like running into a wall. The quiet hum of the operations centre was laced through with a mixture of tension and excitement that Rodney could almost taste. He had to fight the shiver that threatened as he made his way to the central consoles and plugged the laptop back in.
Zelenka, Carter and of course Sheppard were there already. Teyla and Ronon were just arriving from the other transporter.
"Come on, McKay, we're ready." Carter's voice was edged with only a little impatience.
"And the transporters don't go any faster for me than they do for anyone else."
He felt rather than saw the eye rolls around the room.
"No, but most people move faster." Sheppard's voice not surprisingly.
"And we're in a rush because?" He turned and glared at Sheppard. "Last time I looked this was my project, so it will get done on my schedule which includes my walking speed."
"Oh get on with it, McKay." Sheppard and Carter spoke in unison.
"That's exactly what I was doing, am doing." Rodney didn't wait for a response. "Simpson, this is McKay, stand by to fire up the field grid."
"Standing by." Simpson's voice was crisp.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Carter looked at Sheppard obviously waiting for something.
"Yes Ma'am." He tapped his earpiece. "Mnenosyne this is Sheppard, ready to beam aboard."
"Transporting now, sir." The familiar flash of white light followed the cool voice of the Mnenosyne technician, leaving empty air where Sheppard had been standing.
Carter had ordered Sheppard to take command of the hybrid ship for the duration of the project in case anything went wrong, or any of the 302 pilots needed rescuing.
"Atlantis this is Sheppard, Mnenosyne is standing by."
Carter nodded at McKay who turned back to his console and tapped his own earpiece.
"On my mark. Three, two, one, mark."
Rodney's eyes were glued to the screen as Lorne's flight of 302s began to move the first plane of nine pieces of asteroid into position.
It was slow going and the timing had to be perfect so they had a tense twenty-five minutes or so as the pieces were slowly shifted towards their position in orbit directly over the city.
"Remember we can afford to lose two of these babies, but absolutely no more or the field will destabilise before it's had chance to form properly."
"Understood, Doctor. One minute out now."
"Counting down now, McKay."
"Fifty seconds." Lorne's voice was pilot calm.
Rodney counted the final ten himself. "Three, two, one."
Simpson's "firing up the field" coincided exactly with McKay's "mark" and everyone held their breath.
"Release and pull away." Lorne's voice was accompanied by the little dots representing the 302s on the screen scattering in all directions away from their unwieldy cargo.
"Wait for it..." Rodney's hands were gripping the console, but in his heart he knew. Each piece of asteroid drifted serenely into the energy field, was caught, ensnared and held in a perfect grid.
"First plane of the cube in place, Doctor McKay." The smile in Lorne's voice was unmistakable.
Applause broke out all over the control room, all over the city in fact. They could even hear the pilots of the 302s cheering. Carter was smiling. Only the Mnenosyne was silent.
"Okay, next plane. It's not over yet, people." Rodney refused to start dancing till the job was complete. Any one of a hundred things he could think of, and no doubt thousands more he couldn't, could go wrong between now and the cube being in place and operational.
"Major Lorne, two pieces of the next plane are not so consistent in weight and mass as the first nine so there is more risk of them dropping out of the field." Zelenka's voice was serious but not overly concerned.
"Understood Doc, s'why I'm taking one and Delaware the other." Other than Sheppard, Lorne and Delaware were the two best fliers on the base.
"Good." Zelenka looked up at Rodney and the pair exchanged tiny grins.
"It'll be fine, Radek, Lorne and Delaware won't mess up." The sardonic voice came over the speakers from the Mnenosyne.
Rodney thought he caught something in Sheppard's voice seconds before something hit him like he'd just been slapped, except no one was even within arms reach and he realised the strike hadn't been physical.
"No pressure then, sir," Lorne's sarcastic response came back.
Carter and everyone in the control room smiled. Everyone except McKay.
"None at all, Major."
There was a momentary pause before Lorne's voice came back again. "Everyone's clamped on to their respective asteroid pieces, Doctor McKay, we're ready to go again."
Lorne's voice sounded in Rodney's ear breaking his thoughts, forcing his mind back to the job at hand and startling him a little. He hoped no one noticed, especially not Carter.
Carter may not have noticed, but his teammates had. Ronon and Teyla exchanged meaningful looks before Ronon drifted closer to Rodney. He didn't say anything, this was complicated science and Ronon was still learning the basics, but he was an expert at observation and very fluent in 'McKay reading.' Spotting when McKay was succeeding in hiding (something) in plain sight was now second nature. Right now there was nothing he could do about whatever it was that was bothering the scientist but Teyla had told him that sometimes all it needed was for a person to 'be there' so Ronon was being there. If McKay needed him not to be there he'd say so.
Only he didn't. Seconds later Rodney looked up directly into Ronon's eyes. The Satedan's expression was serious, but full of confidence. All it took was a slight nod and Rodney squared his shoulders, stood up straighter and tapped his radio to get things started once more.
They repeated the process. It took a little longer this time. The chunks of asteroid had to be brought from further away, but after another tense hour the second plane of the defence cube was in place. There was another round of cheering and applause from everywhere except the Mnenosyne, and another admonition that they weren't through yet from McKay.
Building the final plane got underway.
Rodney swallowed, and gripped the edge of the console hard. This was it, if he'd been a praying man he'd have been praying right now and not just for this final stage to work.
He shook his head and sighed, forcing himself to focus on the console and not on the lack of reaction from the Mnenosyne. For god's sake, this was stupid. So what if Sheppard was being childish. What did it matter? It wouldn't be the first time so why was it making him feel like this. What was he, some kind of overgrown puppy desperate for its master's, Sheppard's, attention? Why did it matter so much that Sheppard was pleased with him? And why could he feel anger that wasn't his?
The only thing Rodney was sure of was that it did matter. For some stupid unfathomable reason it mattered a great deal and that thought angered him much more than Sheppard's juvenile behaviour.
Ronon shifted a little closer.
The third plane would take longest to get into place because it was in the highest orbit, but this was third time round for the pilots and the technology, so provided no one got careless and the power calculations on the generator held up, there was little else that could go wrong. Even settling for a double grid rather than a cube because they couldn't maintain the power needed wouldn't be a total failure and they would have some protection.
This time it took almost an hour and a half for the 302s to gently shift the asteroid chunks into place. The power calculations were perfect, the field held the cube in place and the control system Rodney had devised gave them total manoeuvrability on the cube through every plane and axis. Any beam weapon directed at the city would have to bend twice in order to avoid cutting through at least two components of the orbital defence cube. Carter had also been fast to point out that the cube was a great defence against any number of other types of attack.
"Release and pull away boys and girls." Lorne's voice was still totally calm and level.
Rodney's eyes never left the screen as the asteroid pieces drifted into position and were held by the field.
"Orbital defence cube in place." Lorne's pilots started whooping and hollering almost drowning out Simpson's..."And fully operational."
The cube did a celebratory roll along its diagonal axis just because it could. Simpson and Zelenka weren't above a little childishness occasionally. The cheering got louder all over the city and out in space.
"You should get in a jumper, McKay, and come and take a look." Once again Lorne's smile was audible.
A hand was suddenly thrust under Rodney's nose and he looked into Zelenka's smiling blue eyes as they shook. Simpson appeared next with the rest of her team and shook hands too, before they continued hugging anyone who was up for it. Rodney tried to scowl at his over-exuberant scientists, but it didn't really come off.
Another, much larger hand fell heavily onto his shoulder and he looked up into twinkling brown eyes.
"Nice one, McKay." Ronon's voice was gruff but full of warmth.
Teyla pulled his head down to touch hers in the Athosian way. "Rodney," was all she said
When he stepped away from Teyla a smaller hand squeezed his shoulder. Carter nodded and smiled. Was she twinkling a little too? Rodney thought she was, well they all deserved to be pleased today, all of them, except...
Rodney looked around as more and more people appeared in the control room to celebrate. He was desperately trying to ignore one single totally unimportant fact.
There had been no sudden flash of bright, white light.
Carter had stuck him up here because she could hardly command the ship and the base if anything went wrong, but John couldn't help but wonder if it was also to keep him out of the way.
Well, that was just fine by him.
He heard the cheering and the applause from the 302 pilots and down in the city. It was going on all over the Mnenosyne too. Hardly surprising really, the project had involved a number of disciplines including the military and its success was something for everyone to share. The defence cube was orbiting serenely over the city, testament to McKay's latest hare-brained, off the wall idea that resulted in everyone feeling that little bit safer.
He watched it from the bridge, floating majestically in space, watched it roll elegantly on its diagonal axis and was smiling, before he remembered he was mad at its creator and schooled his features into a scowl. He'd give it an hour or so to let the celebration die down a little before he beamed back to the city.
What made this whole thing worse was that McKay wasn't behaving at all the way John expected.
He'd expected at least one if not several visits from the scientist, trying to protest his innocence and demonstrate to John how he couldn't possibly have been responsible for what had happened to Elizabeth. Demonstrations complete with graphs and charts, equations and calculations that John would only be able to understand if he spent hours working them out. The fact that there hadn't been any such visits so far was unsettling. Although it probably just meant that Rodney was too caught up in the defence cube project to find the time. He'd get around to it soon enough, John was sure, probably later tonight now that the cube was up and running.
Letting go of his irritation with Rodney was always harder than it should be. He wasn't someone who usually stayed angry at people: that was McKay's thing, but a lifetime of repression took its toll when confronted with someone like McKay.
John sighed, it was hard to admit even to himself that Rodney bothered him more because he was more bothered about Rodney than anyone he'd ever met. The man irritated the pants off him sometimes, but he had more good times with Rodney than anyone else he could remember.
"You think that way would be easier, or think it is better because of something else?"
"Oh, just easier. I have no desire to waste my time on a fancy solution that looks pretty when a straightforward one will do just as well. The inelegance of correct math that will only be understood by a handful of people on the base isn't exactly high on my list of concerns right now."
"Good." Radek grinned and returned to his own lab space.
With no senior staff meeting that morning, Rodney and Radek were in the labs early, hoping to get re-acquainted with any number of projects that had been neglected of late, thanks to the defence cube.
They were working in main lab 6 next door to the bio chem. labs, trying to catch up on a few joint discipline projects that had been waiting far too long for their input due to the priority given to other projects like the defence cube. The work had been bumped up the schedule to avoid the inevitable complaining from a pissed off Doctor Mason, head of the biochemistry division. Born and raised in one of the roughest areas of Sheffield the man had no issues with using his fists to make his point if he felt it necessary. Mason was most likely to complain loudly and at length in a manner only McKay himself could rival but Rodney didn't want to take any risks. Actually, Zelenka could probably rival McKay too sometimes, but his best rants were always in Czech so they didn't count.
Right now, though, McKay was swearing up a storm, shattering the peaceful industry of the lab, sucking in air through his teeth, and vigorously shaking his right hand. Miko was hovering with a first aid kit which she placed on the bench where McKay couldn't miss it before darting back to her own lab space.
"Thank-you." Rodney grimaced and hissed in pain again before reaching for the kit and ignoring the fact that Miko's wasn't the only startled glance in his direction at the sudden appearance of McKay's manners..
The noise from Rodney's latest crisis diverted attention from the noise coming from the lab next door. The volume of the swearing increased until the doorway between the physics lab and adjacent biochem. lab was filled with the sniffling, shaking form of Doctor Ingrid Bergstrom. The terrified woman was backing away from an extremely angry Doctor Wallace Mason, who was advancing on her with a face like thunder and in a manner that could only be described as being with serious intent. McKay had never actually killed a scientist in anger in the lab; was Mason about to surpass his boss?
"For god's sake woman, you stupid fucking cow!" Doctor Mason's accent was now planted firmly in his native Sheffield. "How could you not see that would be the result? You did the entire bloody sequence out of order. Have you never seen trypsin cleavage before, or did you get your degrees from a pawn shop?"
Bergstrom fetched up against an empty bench and could retreat no further. Mason was still advancing, waving his hands in a manner that looked like he'd been taking lessons from McKay.
The irate biochemist drew breath for another diatribe when he was cut off by McKay's equally loud and equally scathing tones.
"For cryin' out loud, at least keep it in your own lab, Wallace."
It had the desired effect of stalling the irate man for a second and turning his attention to McKay to protest his right to anger at his junior's obvious ineptitude.
Rodney held up his half-taped hand stalling Mason again.
"Oh no! My lab, my right to rant."
It was a typical McKay argument, part childish, part authoritative, and kind of impossible to argue with.
Still trembling and sniffling, Bergstrom clutched at the bench behind her as though terrified her superior would attempt to physically remove her back to the biochem lab just so he could continue his tirade.
Bergstrom wasn't the only one struggling with an overload of emotion. Rodney had to grab the bench to avoid being overwhelmed by the twin tides of Mason's anger and Bergstrom's distress.
"I gather this means even one of the brightest and best can be a total imbecile on a bad day?" Rodney turned his glare on Bergstrom who flinched and seemed to shrink where she stood.
"You! Berger, Bergdorf ..."
"Bergstrom..." several people said quietly.
"Whatever." Rodney hand waved the name away. "You, stop snivelling, it makes you look like an oversized chipmunk with a bad cold."
He fished around in a drawer behind him and pulled out something with a foil wrapping.
The little Japanese woman jumped and squeaked out a "yes doctor McKay", eyes huge behind her thick glasses.
Rodney tossed her the bar of Lindt chocolate he'd just taken from the drawer. There were gasps all round the lab.
"Take Berger chipmunk here to the mess and get her some coffee and share that between you, and don't bring her back 'til she's turned off the water works properly. I don't want to hear any sniffling over the equations after that much chocolate okay? Or I'll consider it blackmail and have you both arrested."
Miko might have been stunned, but she wasn't stupid. Chocolate clutched firmly in one hand, she grabbed her distraught, trembling colleague with the other and the pair fled in the direction of the nearest transporter.
Rodney glared around the lab making several of the dumbstruck scientists flinch, and successfully covering his relief at the removal of one of source of his extreme discomfort. Now to deal with the other and then they could all get back to work. After he'd made sure no one else took advantage of him in the future.
"The rest of you don't even think about pulling any crying stunts on me in an attempt to get chocolate, it won't work, okay?
"Now Wallace..." Rodney stalked up to his still angry but obviously stunned colleague. "What did she do?"
"Fucked up a simulation that had taken us three days to set up." The man sighed and his shoulders slumped. The biochemists were working on trying to make something comparable to the ATA gene therapy that would give a temporary ability to use Wraith technology similar to the way Teyla could.
"Ah." Rodney nodded in an oddly sympathetic manner. "You thought highly enough of her to put her on the team."
Wallace nodded. "She's brilliant, normally."
"So she just screwed up this once then?"
The other scientist nodded again. "I guess it may have been partly my fault. My instructions may have been a bit imprecise. Usually the sequence for that process doesn't matter but this time..."
"It did," Rodney finished. "So an otherwise good scientist misunderstood and screwed up. Think she'll do it again?"
"Huh, no, I very much doubt it. Ingrid Bergstrom learns and never makes the same mistake twice, that I do know."
"So suck this one up, re-do the simulation, make her re-do it if you think it will do any good and stop disrupting my lab and wasting my time."
Mason grinned evilly and turned toward his own lab, but McKay wasn't quite done.
"Oh, and Mason."
The scientist looked back to his boss.
"You don't actually have to say the word, but it might be an idea to let Bergstrom know you didn't mean everything you said to her, a little encouragement sometimes helps."
There was no mistake on the name this time.
Mason nodded and turned again, but Rodney still wasn't done.
"Yes, McKay" Was that a hint of impatience in the biochemists tone?
"You owe me two bars of Lindt 80%."
"I charge 100% interest."
The indignant splutters from the biochemist could be heard over the amused titters of the physicists.
Lightening the mood helped Rodney as much as everyone else. Mason was calm now and out of Rodney's lab and hopefully the situation would just blow over although that was probably a triumph of hope over expectation. The gossip machine would be in overdrive soon if it wasn't already.
Rodney glared round his lab again. Fortunately that was all it took.
The CSO returned to his own bench, resumed the awkward task of taping up his burned fingertips and deliberately ignored the whispering going on behind his back.
Word of McKay's weird behaviour in the lab flew round the city faster than the Mnenosyne in Hyperspace. That and the problems between McKay and Colonel Sheppard about what had happened to Doctor Weir were the two hottest topics of conversation for a while.
Despite John's concern that McKay may be being threatened in some way, things weren't improving between them any. If anything, the scientist had retreated further frustrating John more and making what little communication there was between them degenerate into shouting matches even faster than normal.
It was all worsened by the fact that Carter didn't seem to be able to avoid getting dragged into, or worse, being the cause of most of the situations that escalated out of control. It probably wasn't surprising considering the underlying atmosphere that still sometimes pervaded the base, but people were concerned that the colonel and his scientist weren't over it by now, like they usually were. No one disputed that the argument had been serious and about an extremely sensitive topic, but it was plain that Carter had only been spouting a theory about an option she herself admitted probably wasn't available at the time.
People couldn't understand why the natural chemistry and deep friendship between the two men hadn't asserted itself enough yet to get things back to normal between them.
Surely, Colonel Sheppard should know Doctor McKay well enough by now...
Atlantis and its inhabitants were unsettled when Sheppard and McKay were at odds with each other.
"Face it, McKay, she was right and you were wrong."
"This time!" Rodney's comeback was instantaneous and he didn't need to see the eye roll to know it had happened.
Rodney was striding down the corridor towards the labs with Sheppard hot on his heels. Anyone they met scuttled well out of the way of the pair. Rodney's shoulders were stiff and his chin was jutting out in the manner that said he was more than just a little annoyed.
"Just suck it up, McKay!" the colonel tried again. He was frustrated and sounded annoyed.
Rodney stopped and spun round to face his team leader, causing John to have to brake hard to avoid crashing bodily into the scientist. Flinty blue eyes met uncompromising hazel and the air between the two men crackled not with their usual playful one-upmanship but with real tension and anger.
"Fine, fine, Carter was right and I was wrong... wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. There, I said it. Satisfied now? Can I get back to doing something far more important than having this pointless discussion?" Rodney scowled.
Sheppard's sigh spoke volumes.
"Yeah, go. And maybe it should be Colonel Carter, considering her position..."
Rodney didn't even deign to dignify that one with a reply, but only turned on his heel and stalked off down the corridor.
John scowled at the memory of their latest argument. Rodney made far too much of it when Carter was right and he was wrong, and it wasn't as if it happened that often. John was pretty certain that Rodney was ahead in the 'being right stakes' overall, but Carter brought out all the worst of Rodney's insecurities and vulnerabilities as well as his intense competitive, even combative spirit. The results could be pretty spectacular, but it was getting too much and too frequent. Rodney was driving John even more insane than he usually did, despite their mutual avoidance routine.
John knew when things got out of shape between him and McKay it put Teyla and Ronon in an awkward position. Usually, the pair stayed neutral and pushed both of them equally into fixing it. This time though, one unpleasant memory was followed swiftly by another, a discussion with Ronon in the mess earlier that morning.
"He's making too much of it and it's affecting everything and everyone." John's voice was full of frustration and annoyance.
"You think?" Ronon sat back, resting his right ankle on his left knee, his relaxed posture a stark contrast to the colonel who, for once, was sitting up straight, elbows resting on the table in front of him, revealing more about how he felt than he probably wanted.
"Don't you?" Sheppard actually looked surprised that Ronon hadn't instantly agreed with him.
The big Satedan shrugged.
"Think he's being the way I'd expect him to be over it. He's pissed. Think I'd be pissed in his position too."
That got him a startled look from Sheppard.
"No one likes being wrong, McKay less than anyone, but he and Radek bounce ideas back and forth like that all the time and he never gets wound up like he was this morning."
"Zelenka's his science buddy. They spar over science like we spar in the gym. It's different."
Ronon wasn't budging. "How? He's known Carter for years. They've worked together before. She's the one that found his sister."
It was John's turn to shrug this time.
"So?" Ronon shrugged right back at him. "Still doesn't make it the same as Doctor Zelenka or Doctor Kusanagi or Doctor Simpson."
"He still wants to impress her all the time, that's the problem."
"Oh, come on, this is the famous Sam Carter he goes on and on and on about. He's been in love with her for years. He even named his pet whale after her for god's sake."
Ronon shot Sheppard a dark look that fortunately the colonel didn't catch.
"Not heard him go on about her like that since she's been here or for a while actually, not since his sister was here."
"Sam the whale was after his sister was here," John shot back instantly.
Ronon shrugged again. "Colonel Carter isn't one of us."
"Yet." John was pushing the military's party line a little too. It never hurt, especially with Ronon. "She's a legend at the SGC." The last was more musing to himself about Carter's status at the SGC and McKay's status here in Atlantis.
"Yeah." Ronon's tone was carefully neutral. "Look, I gotta go; I promised Teyla I'd help with the stuff for New Athos. Later."
So Carter wasn't winning Ronon over as fast as John hoped she might, but more importantly Ronon wasn't backing off from making his point with John either, which meant he felt he had a point to make. One that maybe John wasn't getting fast enough. The big guy had always had this weird kind of soft spot for McKay, especially since they got stuck on that hive ship together, but he was fast enough to rein the scientist in if he felt it necessary, so it wasn't just loyalty to McKay that had Ronon playing devils advocate for McKay with him.
Was Ronon right though?
There was a niggling voice in the back of John's head that said this was another one of those occasions when Ronon was seeing more than him and therefore his conclusions were more accurate. The Satedan had a habit of telling it like it was and John knew he often listened to Ronon when on one else got through. The man said so little that when he did you tended to listen and listen good. Ronon said it like he saw it, similar to Rodney in a way.
Was Ronon seeing something between McKay, Carter and John that John was missing? John thought Rodney was getting out of line; Ronon thought Rodney was being himself and was entitled to his opinions and his differences with Carter. It was noisy and annoying but the base was still functioning and the work was still getting done.
So why was John sitting here brooding over it?
This wasn't the first argument he'd had with McKay and it wouldn't be the last either. He was only avoiding the guy until he was able to deal with him again, and ignoring the strange looks he got from Carter on the way. He was busy, McKay was busy, they didn't live in each other's pockets. Atlantis was a bigger place than that rabbit warren under Cheyenne Mountain. There were a hundred and one different reasons John could come up with for not seeing McKay apart from officially.
However, avoiding Rodney meant it was easier on his nerves sometimes if he avoided other people who were friends with Rodney too. Otherwise he ended up having conversations like the one he'd had with Ronon earlier which left him feeling unsettled and a little foolish. All of which was why he was eating dinner in the mess at 1600.
Eating this early meant sharing an almost deserted mess with an odd assortment of off-shift medics, scientists running experiments that didn't keep normal lab hours and a few off-duty marines.
John settled at a quiet table by the open window where he was half-hidden by a lovely selection of potted plants, courtesy of the botanists and Elizabeth.
He couldn't see the group sitting at the table out on the balcony, but with the breeze blowing the way it was he could hear them quite clearly. He was just about to get up and move to somewhere quieter when the conversation made him stop and sit down again.
"Look, we all know McKay's a royal pain in the ass, almost all the time, but are you serious?" A male voice John didn't recognise said.
"Apparently, Colonel Carter had calculations that prove it. That's what started all this fighting and it's getting worse." That was a female voice.
"No, Maisie, she doesn't. That's the whole point. She has calculations that may prove more power could have been available, but they're based on data that most of the engineers think wasn't available at the time and Colonel Carter agrees with them. I heard her say so the other day at the Mensa meeting. There was nothing Doctor McKay could have done at the time to avoid the beam grazing the tower and prevent what happened to Doctor Weir. So stop making it sound as if he did something to hurt her deliberately, because he didn't."
"Yeah, I gotta agree there." The male voice again. "McKay can be a selfish, arrogant son of a bitch, but he's been there before and there's no way he'd allow an accident to happen if he thought he could prevent it. Sorry, I know he's a jerk, but I don't believe he's either deliberately or even accidentally negligent."
"So how do you explain Colonel Sheppard then? He believes it was McKay's fault. They haven't been near each other unless it's been absolutely necessary for days now."
"Colonel Sheppard blames McKay for everything," a new male voice chimed in. "If it's raining outside Sheppard blames McKay; it's how they are. Most of the time it's funny and it doesn't matter, and let's face it, McKay can give as good as he gets, if not better, but sometimes it gets out of hand like this has. They'll get over it. Sheppard's no fool, he knows McKay wouldn't endanger anyone deliberately, especially not Weir, not after all that's happened here. Plus there's that crap with the Ancient device that nearly killed McKay, and then losing Beckett like we did. If you ask me, they're all still suffering as much from that as anything." That sounded like Doctor Mason.
"Ooooh, arm chair psychology, much, Wallace."
"Oh for god's sake, you stupid woman, observation. You're a scientist aren't you, use your eyes. You don't need to be Einstein to see what's right in front of you on a daily basis with that pair. I don't know how Zelenka and Teyla and Ronon put up with it. I know I wouldn't."
"You don't put up with anything any more than McKay does."
"Too right. Out here, putting up with idiocy is the fastest route to a probably slow and painful demise. McKay's not wrong when he gets on about all that, sadly, and in his own way Sheppard's just the same. No he isn't heavy on the yes sir, no sir, military spit and polish bollocks, but between them they've kept us alive for three years now so cut them both some slack. McKay no more caused what happened to Elizabeth than Sheppard himself did, and in a few days Sheppard'll get it and everything'll be back to normal. Well, as normal as things ever get around here and I for one will be very grateful."
"Yeah, me too." Another female voice that just may have been one of the nurses John wasn't sure. "I hate it when those two argue, really hate it, makes me feel all uneasy and a bit sad."
"Yeah. If ever two guys were meant to be best friends it's those two. They just fit together, y'know?"
John nearly snorted coffee down his nose.
"McKay's actually kinda cute when he and the Colonel are together."
Now he nearly choked on his dinner and had to reach for the coffee before he died from lack of oxygen. Rodney, cute? John knew there had been times in the past when he may have thought Rodney was cute, but all he could hope was that McKay never ever heard himself described as the cute one when people talked about the two of them together. John swallowed hard. The idea of him and McKay together... They were friends (sometimes, when McKay wasn't annoying the pants off him) and nothing more.
"Right, that does it. If we're going to have the 'oh aren't the Colonel and Doctor McKay sweet together' discussion yet again I am going back to the lab. This galaxy's insane as much because of the humans sent here from Earth as because of the Wraith, or anything else." There was the sound of a chair scraping across the floor."
Fortunately, the plants hid John as Doctor Mason strode from the mess.
"I hope Wallace is correct about everything coming right between the Colonel and Doctor McKay. Anyway I need sleep, I pulled an extra shift to help Doctor Keller this morning and I'm bushed."
More scraping chairs then three women and a man headed towards the door. John had been right: one was a nurse, the guy was one of Keller's doctors and the other two were scientists.
So it was John's day for unsettling conversations.
That bunch of revelations left him feeling, well, he wasn't really sure. Part of him was flattered that Doctor Mason seemed to think so highly of his capacity to see the truth and do the right thing, but dammit he was angry at McKay and there was a weird niggling doubt in his mind about the man regardless of what everyone said. McKay did get fixated on an idea to the point where he ignored everything else and no one could change his mind about it. John had absolutely incontrovertible first-hand experience of McKay's utter single-mindedness.
Except this time he hadn't been single-minded like that, had he?
It had been a do or die situation, and Rodney had used all his top people in some way or another. He'd even kept Simpson on Atlantis, and sometimes Rodney could have a bit of a chauvinistic women-and-children-first approach in a crisis that John knew drove some of his female scientists crazy. So maybe what John was really doing was blaming not only McKay, but the science staff for what had happened to Elizabeth. Sheer statistics told him that one man might be so focused as to miss a bunch of data, but it was less likely that a group of people, all at the top of their field, were all going to miss the same data... Ergo... McKay...
"Colonel Sheppard report to Colonel Carter immediately."
The interruption effectively put an end to both eating and thinking. John stood, tapping his radio as he cleared his tray into the collection area.
"On my way, Ma'am."
Carter was in her office. John had to consciously think of it that way. The sight of a blonde head where there should be a dark one was a painful reminder every time. It seemed wrong for that office to be anyone but Elizabeth's. It was stupid and John knew it, but he couldn't help how he felt. He might have been an officer, following orders, accepting a new commander but he was still a man and it was thanks to Elizabeth Weir that he had found a home, a family and a place to belong, and seeing Carter in Elizabeth's chair hurt, no matter how pleasant the woman was.
He tapped on the doorframe rather than walk straight in like he used to do with Elizabeth.
"Come in, Colonel. Take a seat."
He knew Carter tried not to stand on military formality, but there was no getting away from the differences between the SGC and Atlantis sometimes.
"Sorry to drag you here so suddenly, but we've had a call from the people of P43 79G asking for help. They're being raided tomorrow apparently."
John nodded. "The Currans, that means the Foleans are at it again."
Carter half grinned and nodded in response. "That's exactly what they said. Do they call often?"
"Not really, been a while since we heard from them. Every so often the Foleans test the Curran's alliance with Atlantis by sending raiding parties through the gate and creating mayhem for a few hours. Usually we send over a couple of teams, hide out in the woods not far from the gate and 'persuade' them to go home. They leave, we have a grand dinner with the Currans and it all settles down again for another few months."
Carter nodded. "That's what I thought from reading previous mission reports."
"We want to keep in with the Currans because they grow tilla beans and a plant called keraisa," John explained just in case Carter hadn't read that bit.
"The Pegasus equivalent of coffee and a natural antibiotic."
John had to hand it to her; Carter proved she'd done her homework every time.
"You got it, Colonel.
"Standard procedure then."
"Yes, Ma'am. The Foleans aren't really a threat to us. They're still using bows and arrows, pretty good ones, though. They can do serious damage if you get hit, but P90 warning fire, the odd well-placed explosion, and they're running for the gate."
"So we've never killed any."
"Uh no, Ma'am."
"But they have killed Currans."
"Yes. S'why we gave the Currans a code and told them to call us. The two societies are at about the same level technologically. Any battle between them would be nasty, but they don't have the capacity to wipe each other out. It's more like a couple of warring tribes testing each other. Apparently, it's all because of religion and what they grow."
Carter rolled her eyes.
"Isn't it always. Why did we never ally with the Foleans?" Perhaps the woman wasn't quite perfect. Her genuine puzzlement suggested that was clearly one mission report she'd either missed or forgotten.
"We got through the gate and they instantly started shooting arrows at us. We gave it three more tries then gave up."
Carter chuckled. "Can't say I blame you."
"You want me to take a team, Ma'am?"
"First thing tomorrow. The Curran's have seen a couple of scouts and think it will be a dawn raid. Their dawn is about eight hours after ours?"
John nodded. "I'll take my own team, Lorne's and Kagan's."
Carter looked surprised.
"All your team?"
"Sure." John didn't entirely succeed in hiding his surprise at the question.
"He's a member of my team. Unless you order otherwise, McKay goes on the mission same as Teyla and Ronon."
Carter nodded. "Fine by me, Colonel."
"We'll leave at 0600." John stood. "If that's all, Ma'am?"
Carter nodded. "Dismissed."
They went through the gate at 0600 precisely. As usual they were met by the Currans and deployed in the woods around the Stargate the way they always did. It was a routine mission, after all.
The problem was, this time the Foleans clearly hadn't read the same script and they came through the gate in far greater numbers than ever before. The Atlantis teams were used to being outnumbered, but not to this extent, and inevitably many more Foleans than usual escaped into the trees and began heading towards the Curran farms and villages.
John had no choice but to abandon the stun only when necessary policy and ordered the Foleans stunned on sight. It was risky and the clean up would be hard work, but he felt he had little option.
AG1 was working in concert with Lorne's team. They'd managed to call for reinforcements, and with some of the Currans acting as decoys things were starting to go to plan.
They were running through the woods trying to herd the Foleans into clearings where they could be stunned more easily and assembled in one place, ready to be escorted back to the gate when they woke up.
His team had fanned out, Ronon on his left, McKay on his right and Teyla on McKay's right. There were six in the group they were chasing to the clearing, and there was a group of at least another six coming up fast behind them.
Maybe it was overhearing Mason the previous day, maybe he was just clearer-headed about things, but John had to hand it to McKay, he was getting good at this now. He kept pace with his team, firing controlled bursts from his P90 high overhead that kept the Foleans moving, and more importantly didn't give them chance to turn and fire.
"Colonel Sheppard!" Lorne's voice came over the radio.
"Go ahead, Major."
"We just sprung three new traps on the way to the clearing, you're gonna have to handle the group we were chasing 'til we can get there, sorry, sir."
"Get here as fast as you can."
"Of course, sir."
They kept moving, but they were seriously outnumbered without Lorne's team.
Through the trees John could see they were nearing the clearing where they should have met AG2 coming the other way, thus trapping the two groups of Foleans between them.
Their Foleans were in the clearing now and soon so were the ones Lorne's team had been chasing.
"Fire at will, Ronon."
It was an unnecessary order. The Satedan's hand canon was firing even before John finished speaking. He started shooting his own ZAT. The Foleans were going down nicely.
"Watch our six, McKay!"
"Already on it, Colonel, there's no sign of the chasing group."
Rodney was scanning the trees behind them with field glasses while Teyla came close and covered him. He pulled out the little life signs detector and checked it just in case.
"Nothing on this either."
"Means they decided to flank us."
Rodney lowered the glasses. "Keep looking in the trees, Teyla, that group has to be somewhere, but those vines..."
"Cause problems with the life signs detector, I know, Rodney, I will look too."
They both scanned the trees left and right, while Sheppard and Ronon kept firing. Lorne had arrived on the other side and between them they had almost all the Foleans stunned.
Suddenly, Rodney caught a glimpse of something overhead.
The Foleans were deadly archers and he barely had time to shout, "They're in the trees," before they all saw the arrow heading straight towards Sheppard's throat. The only person who hadn't seen it was Sheppard himself.
Ronon was too far away to dive and push Sheppard out of harm's way, though it didn't stop him trying. Teyla was yelling at John to move, but there wasn't even time for a proper warning.
Panicked and desperate Rodney opened his mouth to yell too, but no sound came out. Then the world slowed down.
Sheppard turned towards Rodney as Ronon came diving towards him from the other side. For a second John's eyes widened as he caught sight of the arrow coming straight at him, then blinked in surprise when it literally changed trajectory mid-flight and turned left between himself and McKay, embedding itself in a nearby tree with a dull thud.
Rodney was as stunned as Sheppard. As stunned as everyone.
No one spoke. Then Teyla breathed a sigh of relief.
"Close." Ronon, succinct as ever.
Lorne's team had the Folean's located now and was felling them out of the trees, but the major hadn't missed what had happened.
He ran to Sheppard.
"You okay, sir?"
"Did you see that?" Sheppard was obviously still shocked as he offered Ronon a hand up after his dive. "The arrow!"
"Probably dodgy flight feathers, these people aren't exactly gonna be mass producing precision tooled arrows, Colonel." Rodney was reaching for something, anything to get Sheppard off the subject as fast as possible.
"Arrows don't change direction mid-flight, McKay. That one did."
" Lucky for you then, eh?"
"Indeed, Colonel Sheppard. Is not the correct phrase here something about not looking a gift horse in the mouth, or words like that?"
Rodney wanted to kiss Teyla. Not that he ever would of course, she was way out of his league, but right now the urge was incredibly strong.
Sheppard shrugged, but Rodney wondered if he would let it go or if there would be some kind of post mortem over the incident.
Fortunately, Lieutenant Kagan came on the radio then to tell them they had just rounded up the last party of Foleans, and if the colonel agreed they could begin moving those that were regaining consciousness back to the gate.
"Go ahead, Lieutenant."
John looked at their own body pile and the remaining half a dozen disarmed raiders sitting on the floor looking suitably dejected.
"Guess we best start moving our own, too."
They began the clean up, disarming the unconscious and herding small groups back to the gate as they regained consciousness. It was all routine from here on in.
AG1 was the last team back in the Atlantis gate room later that day. John had sent Kagan and Lorne's teams off to have dinner with the Currans and cement their alliance. They would return in the morning, probably with gifts that made the whole mission worthwhile. Why couldn't people like the Curran's be the ones with the ZPMs? It was one of Rodney's favourite moans.
Carter was grinning as she came to meet them.
"We'll debrief after you get cleaned up and have something to eat." The woman certainly had a fine grasp of priorities.
The team nodded and trooped off to hand in their weapons, get checked over and grab a shower and a meal.
Rodney was hoping the whole arrow incident had been lost in the hustle of the end of the mission.
Rodney got through the post-mission debrief on a mixture of grumpiness and 'how the hell should I know?' which raised eyebrows, but thankfully Carter was more interested in the bigger picture than focusing on a single minor incident.
She asked questions about the mission and why it had taken longer than normal. Sheppard pointed out that Lorne had instructions to find out from the Curran's if their own intelligence had fallen down in some way or if it had been a case of simply being too blasé all round.
Fortunately for Rodney, no matter how many times Sheppard mentioned it Carter didn't dwell on the mysterious trajectory-changing arrow. She raised her eyebrows, asked if anyone had brought the arrow back to look at, it turned out Ronon had, but a closer inspection all round showed it to be a simple homemade arrow, nothing special about it at all.
As soon as it was over, Rodney excused himself and headed out to the South Pier recreation balcony. The sheltered terrace, with its spectacular views across the city to the ocean, was the spot of choice for many of the city's couples on a warm Lantean evening, and it was an excellent place for Rodney to hide from his team, because it was the last place they would ever expect him to be.
He found himself suddenly missing Katie. Tonight was the first regular 'date night' since she'd left and Rodney just wanted to wallow and think on his own for a while. It was after incidents like today that Katie had been so good for him. She knew little about going off world on missions that were military rather than scientific and had always been able to distract him with stories from the lab or the greenhouse or, if that failed, with the more traditional methods of distraction.
John nodded at Teyla and watched as she slipped away to follow Rodney.
He and Ronon went to the isolated lounge AG1 used when they wanted privacy, and waited. The unscheduled mission and Rodney's disappearance afterwards was forcing John's natural concern for the scientist to the surface and it was impossible to push it away. Perhaps he didn't want to push it away.
"He is on the South pier balcony." Teyla spoke as soon as the doors closed behind her.
John frowned, obviously wondering why Rodney would choose such a popular public place unless...
Two sets of raised eyebrows greeted the little outburst.
"It's the first Thursday since Katie Brown left. They always had a dinner date on Thursdays."
Teyla sighed. "Of course. You think Rodney is missing Katie? He seemed to take her departure quite well and appears to have adjusted his life accordingly, but it has only been a week, although I did not think they were so deeply involved."
John shook his head. "He's probably missing her because if ever he felt the need to avoid us after a mission or something he always went to her."
Ronon smiled a little and nodded.
"He's hiding in plain sight. Don't you see? That balcony's usually pretty busy so he knows we can't talk to him about what happened today."
Teyla and Ronon both looked puzzled now.
"Want me to go keep watch?" Although much of what John was saying puzzled Ronon he was obviously still concerned in case there was some kind of threat to McKay.
"Who else was there, Teyla?"
"I saw Major Lorne, Doctor Zelenka, Sergeant Clarkson, Sergeant Stackhouse, Doctor Wallis, Doctor Mason and several other marines and scientists."
"Nah, there's no need then." John shook his head at Ronon. "Lorne and Stackhouse are a small army on their own, and Doctor Mason can handle himself and isn't afraid of telling McKay what to do any more than Zelenka is. Unless we're looking at straightforward assassination here Rodney's safe enough where he is."
"Do you really think there is a threat to Doctor McKay, Colonel?"
"I don't know what to think, Teyla. If McKay is genuinely just missing Katie, and doesn't want to talk about it then, fine. If he's using missing Katie as a cover to avoid facing us asking questions he doesn't want to answer, then there is something going on." The irony of that wasn't lost on either of his teammates, but John ignored their raised eyebrows and went on speaking. "Either way, as usual, McKay's being as annoying as hell." John scowled. "And, let's face it, if there is some sort of a threat, he knows about it and doesn't want to talk, otherwise we all know he'd be here, hiding behind us. This is still McKay we're talking about."
That made all of them chuckle but didn't lessen the concern any.
"There's something weird going on with Rodney, I know it, and..." John stopped when he realised that what he was about to say would make him sound like a jealous teenager. He may have spent the last week behaving like one, but there was no need to compound the idea, at least not with Teyla and Ronon.
"You want to know what it is," Teyla finished for him, and John sighed.
"No... Yes... Well, when it has shelves leaping off walls in his lab, and arrows that change direction mid-flight..." It sounded far-fetched and John knew it, but Rodney was exhibiting other strange behaviour too, and John had a feeling. A feeling wasn't exactly empirical evidence, but even so...
"The arrow? That was aimed at you, John. How does that tie in to Doctor McKay?"
"I don't know. It doesn't, not really but..." John almost growled in frustration. "He just wasn't bothered enough. I don't mean he wasn't bothered about me, that much was obvious, I mean he wasn't bothered about what I know he saw that arrow do as plainly as I did, we all did, and it ought to have been the kind of problem that at least intrigued him."
"You are concerned because Doctor McKay dismissed something unusual, in favour of finishing our mission and getting back to Atlantis before dinner?" Teyla's eyebrows were talking more than her mouth.
John sighed. "Yeah, I know, put like that it sounds real stupid, doesn't it?"
Teyla didn't say anything more. She wasn't sure, but didn't want to take any risks.
Ronon was just concerned about McKay, period, but that wasn't necessarily unusual. Ronon was often concerned about his team.
"Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow... Yeowch."
John arrived in the main physics lab just in time to see McKay get up off his stool, face scrunched up in pain, clutching his bleeding right hand to his chest.
"You appear to have discovered the ancient equivalent of a mouse trap, McKay."
"Oh very funny, Radek. Johnson don't touch it!"
There was another yell, female this time.
Radek shrugged. "Oh well, at least we know it goes off on contact with anything or anyone."
Rodney glared at his deputy and went to inspect the damage to Doctor Johnson's hand grumbling all the time under his breath about stupid women who didn't think before touching something.
"That's far worse than mine." He glanced round the lab. "Peters take Johnson to the infirmary to get this looked at and then both of you go get some coffee or tea or something in the mess while we deal with these... whatever they are. Here, take this for later; there's some of that rosehip flavour she likes left."
Rodney handed Doctor Peters a box of herbal tea bags and motioned the pair out of the lab. The other scientists looked a little surprised, but this wasn't the first time McKay had behaved oddly since the chocolate incident. They weren't entirely used to it yet, but they were beginning to adjust whilst trying not to speculate out loud too much.
Rodney spotted John standing to one side of the door as the two scientists hurried out.
John wasn't sure, but he thought he saw Rodney close his eyes and sway just a little before shaking his head.
"Ah, Colonel, could you arrange for some marines with heavy gloves to come and put these into one of those cases we keep for annoyingly stupid objects that bite and that we have no idea what to do with, please?"
John nodded. "Sure, McKay." He tapped his radio and called Sergeant Mendone.
A couple of brisk yes sirs later and the required marines were headed to the lab.
"What are they?" John couldn't help asking as he peered at the offending articles.
"No idea. Zelenka thinks they're Ancient mouse traps."
John tilted his head and shrugged. "Possible, I suppose, but do we have any evidence that there's such a thing as Ancient mice?"
Rodney groaned and reached for the first aid kit to deal with his cut.
"Here, let me." John took the antiseptic cream from the kit and reached over to McKay.
McKay hesitated for a second then cautiously held out his cut hand. It was a bit of a jagged wound but the bleeding was already almost stopped.
John took the offered hand and gently applied the antiseptic cream before taping over the cut. It wasn't serious, more of an occupational hazard than anything else.
John tried not to think too much about what he was doing while he worked. Rodney's hands could be a bit of a fascination for him if he let them, an inappropriate fascination at best. Instead, he just filed away the sense memory for later and concentrated on doing a quick and efficient job now.
"There, all done." John put the cream, gauze and tape back in the med kit.
"Thank-you, Colonel." Rodney was still wary, but the only feelings hitting him were concern, John's nervousness, and his own. John had just been touching him and that was always difficult to handle calmly, but he couldn't dwell on how good it felt, not right now anyway. There were people in the lab, there had to be an element of professionalism at least.
"Now, Colonel, what can I do for you, because I'm sure tending to my hand wasn't the reason you came to the lab this morning?"
"True." John grinned and shrugged.
"I was wondering: you got time later to take a look at the enhanced shielding on the jumpers with me? We were going to do those tests and never got round to it." John tried not to look too eager, though he knew he was failing miserably. Still, it might work in his favour. He held his breath and hoped.
It wasn't a vital project, just something he and Rodney had been tinkering with off and on, and for a few seconds he really thought Rodney was going to blow him off, until Doctor Zelenka came to his rescue.
"Actually, McKay if you could do the tests I would appreciate the data..."
"For the Asgard shielding project I know," Rodney answered, then turned and grinned at John. "What time?"
"See you then, Colonel."
John tried very hard not to bounce out of the lab.
He was halfway down the hall, still revelling in his success, before he realised Doctor Zelenka was trailing him. Slowing his pace he turned to the scientist.
"Okay, Radek, what is it?"
Zelenka indicated an empty lab and John followed him in. Once there, Radek pinned him with an intense and rather pissed off gaze.
"So, Colonel... Who is that and where did you lose the real McKay, hmm?" Was Zelenka actually growling?
John blinked several times, but Zelenka just ploughed on.
"You are sure you brought the correct McKay back from off world missions recently, yes? Because that man, that man is not Rodney and there is no way you will convince me that he is."
It took a while for John's brain to catch up with the scientists and by then Zelenka was speaking again.
"First he gave away a whole bar of Lindt, and now the tea bags, and what is McKay even doing with tea bags unless Katie gave them to him?" Zelenka frowned and shook his head. "Rodney does not give away his things, especially not sweets - candy." Radek remembered John was American and translated quickly.
"I know what sweets are, Radek, but yeah. That was interesting, wasn't it?"
John had noticed. He'd just been too focused on the success of his bridge-building effort with McKay for the implications of the scene in the lab to fully register yet.
"It was not McKay style. Rodney rants, he shouts, he screams if necessary, he belittles snivelling female scientists at full volume and berates those stupid enough to have accidents in the first place and... and as for telling Mason, of all people, to apologise... like he did last week... like I said, what happened to the real McKay? You must have left him on a planet somewhere because the man in the labs is not him."
John's brain was off and running now.
"Do you think Mason could be the one threatening him?"
"Huh! Someone is threatening Rodney?" Zelenka looked and sounded suitably bewildered at John's apparent non sequitur.
John realised he'd just leaped across the thinking stream leaving Zelenka stranded on the other bank.
"Sorry, Radek. We don't know. It was just a thought Ronon, Teyla, and I had when that shelf attacked him the other day."
Now the Czech looked faintly bemused.
"The shelf fell down, Colonel. It was strange, yes, but it did not attack McKay, not really."
John sighed. Radek was a scientist not a soldier, the thinking pattern was entirely different, he should know that well enough by now. "I know but..."
"Ah, you think the idea was that the shelf would fall as Rodney entered or exited the lab and injure him in some way?"
Why did it always sound so plausible in his head and so stupid when said out loud? John sighed. Radek continued. "I understand, and it is a thought but... a shelf? If someone wanted to injure Rodney and make it look like an accident there are far better, more efficient methods that would arouse much less suspicion. And before you bring up today's incidents we found those devices yesterday and Rodney brought them to the lab himself, locked them away himself and retrieved them himself this morning, they didn't bite until he activated them with his gene so..."
"I know, it was just a thought, we were just trying to explain what's been going on that's all."
Radek nodded before continuing. "And as for Doctor Mason, I doubt he would threaten McKay with anything but loud gratitude and probably large amounts of cash."
Now it was John's turn to look suitably puzzled.
"When Rodney recruited Doctor Mason he was in a similar position to Doctor Jackson before he joined the SGC. He is a truly brilliant man, but he had put forward ideas so far ahead of their time and so challenging that he had become a laughing stock among his peers. Mason has a temper, as you know, and didn't deal with the way he was treated very well. There were fistfights at conferences and conventions, which only made things worse. In the end the man was banned from almost every scientific institution or gathering worth anything in his field. Despite the difficulties with Mason's attitude and behaviour Rodney gave him the chance to come to Atlantis and prove his groundbreaking theories, and of course he has. Mind you, Rodney always knew he would, he himself has had a passing interest in biochemistry all his life. It is why he is able to grasp Wraith technology so easily and so well. So..."
"Point taken, Radek."
"Sorry." The Czech shrugged rather comically.
"Maybe I'm just getting too suspicious."
"It is a by-product of living in Atlantis I think, Colonel, but even if the shelf was an accident, what we saw in the labs from Rodney last week and this morning was not."
John nodded and frowned, but before he got chance to speak Zelenka went on. "So you will speak with him this afternoon, while you are working on the jumpers, yes?"
The man was relentless, a trait he shared with McKay.
"I'll do my best Radek, but..."
"You are mending things between you, yes I know, and must be careful, but if this keeps up there will be no discipline in labs, and too much crying to wheedle gifts out of this new, soft-centred McKay and that will be disaster for city."
Radek was obviously concerned because his usually perfect English was slipping.
"Like I said, I'll do my best but no promises."
"Promises are no good to me, Colonel, I need results." And with that parting shot Zelenka went hurrying back off to the labs.
John watched him go before he turned to continue on to the transporter. Just as they always did circumstances were pushing him and McKay back into each other's orbit again, although he wasn't entirely sure when the anger had dissipated, leaving only this desire to mend things with Rodney.
Was it because of what happened on the planet?
Concern and suspicion seemed to have replaced anger. He liked Rodney, maybe too much, he couldn't help it. The man just had a way of getting to John, and one thing he was sure of was that being friends with Rodney was much better than not being friends with Rodney.
It took some admitting even to himself but maybe the bad stuff, the anger, the expectation, the way he sometimes jumped to the worst rather than the best conclusion about Rodney stemmed from an attraction to the man he never seemed able to completely deny.
Working in close proximity to Rodney, like in the jumper, so regularly was a form of bitter-sweet torture, but it was better than what he'd been doing recently.
He'd accepted the invitation because he wanted things to be okay with John again, but there was still some trepidation when Rodney made his way to the jumper bay later that afternoon.
He wasn't entirely convinced Sheppard didn't blame him for Elizabeth, although he'd reconciled himself to probably never knowing what the pilot really thought on some subjects.
Worse, having agreed to join the colonel, he was now in for an uncomfortable time of trying to distract his teammate enough to avoid awkward questions about his behaviour of late. Sheppard could be annoyingly tenacious at times, usually the worst times.
In the past Rodney had always been able to ignore anything he didn't like or didn't want to actually talk about until things with John improved and whatever it was either resolved itself or became a non-issue. This time, though, everything had been much worse, because he'd been so acutely aware of how John felt. For a while Rodney had felt the rage, and the distrust, and the resentment rolling off Sheppard every time they'd had to be together. Sheppard was good at hiding it, too, but this time Rodney had known it was there, been able to feel every flicker, every nuance, every surge of temper, all held so tightly in check. It was incredibly draining, on both of them.
It was the damn arrow that had changed everything, and Rodney had actually felt the change. John had been concerned when the shelf fell down in the main lab, but without proof of anything other than an accident the concern had simply been general; now Rodney could sense a more specific feeling. He had no idea what John was actually thinking, of course, but he'd felt the worry and the fear. It puzzled him more than anything else. Anger, distrust, resentment, irritation he understood; fear and worry that seemed to be for him, about him... that was new and unsettling.
John was already there when he got to the jumper bay.
"Sorry I'm late, Colonel."
"Not really, just trying to keep the guys not working on the Asgard project happy, when the guys working on the Asgard project want my attention all the time, can be kinda hard."
Rodney's lips quirked as he hooked his laptop up to the open panel and started the diagnostics running.
"You'd think they'd be old enough, wouldn't you?"
"Hey, it's prestigious work, Rodney, every kid wants to play with the cool toys." John's voice was strangely warm and Rodney could sense nervousness which was unnerving him.
Rodney sighed. "I know I know, but do they have to be so childish and petty about it. It's worse than kindergarten in the lab some days, I swear." There, that should get him a snarky comment about him being king kid shouldn't it?
"You could always make the worst ones go stand in the corner." John made pointed hat motions over his head, grinning slyly.
"Oh my god, you're as bad as they are, but then what else should I expect. Moron." Rodney smiled his lopsided smile before he remembered relaxing too much round Sheppard could be dangerous.
John grinned back until Rodney turned away to the laptop, then he bit his lip. He really didn't want to stuff this up.
Their need for things to be normal between them again made John wary of asking questions about anything that might be going on with the physicist, but he knew he had to try. If Rodney was just turning over some kind of a new leaf, then so be it, but the arrow on the last mission, the shelf a week or so ago and a nagging little voice in John's head kept saying it was nothing like that.
He decided to start with what he hoped was the safest of topics. The arrow was patently off limits until he'd gauged how open Rodney was prepared to be.
"Mason get over his snit with Bergstrom the other day then?"
Rodney shrugged. "Yeah, he was pissed and rightly so, but she's his protégé so he should deal with her mistakes. He took my advice and made her do the simulation set up herself: best way for her to learn. I'm not sure why he didn't make her do it in the first place, stupid idiot, but, anyway, the experiment was a success when they finally got it done."
"Has he delivered on the chocolate?"
He saw Rodney tense at the mention of the detail. So he was fine talking about Mason and Bergstrom, but not fine talking about his part in the situation. John went with the light approach still.
"You been reading the girls' magazines, McKay?"
Rodney stopped poking at the data pad and looked at him.
"The chocolate, McKay. Cure for all female ills."
Rodney scowled. "Oh my god! For your information, Sheppard, I do have eyes and ears and I have been working with a female staff for a long time now. I don't need to read girly magazines to know the effect a good bar of chocolate can have. I just need to listen to any of the women, Katie when she was here, or Elizabeth and Teyla, or any of them really, to know the effect chocolate has on the female psyche. There's been research done on it you know. Even Carter's not immune."
McKay was hiding behind his blatant and often loudly declared, by the women on base anyway, chauvinism, John could see that.
"So you've been bribing Carter to okay some of the science departments more outlandish projects with chocolate then?" Snide remarks were John's forte after all.
"Of course not, I would have thought that was obvious considering, and, anyway, why would I ever need..." Rodney broke off and his mouth twisted to one side. "Oh very funny, Colonel."
"Just wasn't like you to give away chocolate, McKay."
Rodney's deer in the headlights moment told John he'd caught him just right.
"Well, true, but it got the silly woman out of the labs till she got over it, otherwise she'd have still been sniffling three hours later, and half the female staff would be spending more time trying to comfort her without me noticing than actually doing their own jobs. The atmosphere in the lab would have been tense and not very conducive to useful work, and anyway, it gave me chance to tackle Mason and make sure Bergstrom wasn't a liability. I brought her here on his recommendation, even though she really is way, way too young. He insisted she'd be able to handle it and so far she has, but they're my responsibility, Sheppard, and I have to be sure."
"Hey calm down, I was only asking."
Rodney relaxed a little and John didn't point out the fundamental flaw in the scientist's argument. Simply sending Bergstrom to the mess with Miko would have achieved the desired result; there was no need at all for the chocolate.
If the man was this jumpy about an incident now well over a week old, then bringing up the arrow from yesterday may just ruin John's careful attempt to get things back on track, but he had to try.
They worked on for a while, and John let the conversation slide into wherever it went on its own. Rodney seemed to be getting more comfortable as time went on so there was a chance he wouldn't blow up and bolt if John brought up the arrow.
However, he wasn't above bribery before the fact: it might help a little.
"Shall I grab us some coffee while you carry on with this?"
"Or would you rather have tea?"
Rodney looked up, shocked at John's question. "Since when have I drunk tea, Sheppard?"
"I dunno, McKay but you were giving away tea bags in the lab this morning..."
"Oh those!" Rodney grinned for a second then it faded suddenly. "Katie gave them to me ages ago when Carson was on at me about cutting down my caffeine intake. Some of them aren't that bad actually."
John wanted to kick himself for putting that sad little half smile on Rodney's face. He was meant to be rebuilding their friendship not kicking the man while he was obviously still down from losing his girlfriend.
"Sorry, Rodney, I didn't know."
Rodney shrugged. "It's okay. I just miss her sometimes, you know."
John dropped a hand on to McKay's shoulder and squeezed gently.
"Yeah, not surprising... I'll go get that coffee."
Rodney had to take a few deep breaths once John had left. Unconsciously, he reached up to touch his shoulder where John's hand had rested for a few seconds. Maybe later he'd let himself fantasize about how it would feel to be touched like that every day. At least for now things were going okay with John. He hadn't been tempted to tell the colonel anything, which was a good thing. It would probably all have to come out eventually but regular post-mission check-ups showed him to be healthy, and he knew he felt okay, or as okay as he ever felt so all he had to do was continue to deflect any awkward questions and he was home free.
John was soon back, with coffee and a couple of chocolate cupcakes. Rodney beamed.
"Where did you get those?"
Rodney rolled his eyes so John went on before he made things worse.
"Fresh from the oven. Sergeant Boswell's new recipe. If we like, he'll make more."
Rodney grabbed a cake and bit into it.
John swallowed hard. No one, no male one, should be allowed to look like that simply over a chocolate cake. It was too much for ordinary mortals to handle. If McKay could look like that about cake... John refused to take that any further. Thinking about what Rodney might look like during mind blowing sex was not what he needed to be doing right now.
"Oh my God!" Rodney licked the melty chocolate centre from his lower lip. "I will offer the man surround sound in his quarters, constant hot water, a large screen to watch his personal DVDs on, if he'll carry on making these every week!"
John chuckled. The cakes were good. Light fluffy chocolate sponge topped with chocolate frosting with a surprise liquid chocolate filling in the centre.
"I don't think you'll need to, Rodney. I think the women will have secured a constant supply by the end of today."
"I hope someone offers him sex, the guy deserves all the blow jobs he can get for being able to make these."
John was convinced Rodney was trying to kill him. Just as he'd managed to stop thinking about Rodney and sex he goes and brings the subject up anyway.
He snorted and laughed.
"Nice one, McKay."
"Seems reasonable to me. Talent that great should be rewarded."
John swallowed the rest of his cake and the sarcastic comeback to that remark. Rodney was relaxed and laughing and he wasn't going to spoil it.
Afternoon tea over, they got back to work and John took a chance.
"Hey did you get Zelenka to look at that arrow from yesterday?"
Rodney stopped for no more than half a second and there was a tiny tightening around his mouth before he answered.
"I did; he's going to take it apart when he's done in the labs, but neither him nor Simpson could see anything weird about it. Simpson reckoned it was air currents."
Rodney wasn't lying: he had asked both engineers to look at the arrow and Simpson had said it might be air currents.
"She even went so far as to suggest we send a team to investigate. There might be some good research in it, you never know."
Rodney was so proud of himself; he wasn't lying or dissembling, every thing he said had actually happened.
John cocked his head on one side. McKay was getting better at this, much better. Anyone who didn't know him would never suspect there was anything wrong at all.
"Point. You sending a team?
Rodney nodded. "Zelenka submitted the request to Carter today so if she okays it, yeah. Not decided who yet, but I think Simpson will probably want to go to see if she's right then the rest need to be meteorologists and climatologists."
Smooth Rodney, really smooth. John was impressed. Rodney must have actually done all of this because it would be easy for John to check, but he admired the way the man just breezed through it all. There really was just that occasional faint tightening around the mouth that gave anything away.
"Let me know the outcome would ya?"
"I'll make sure they send you the report. Now pass me that pointy crystal, the rounded end one with the key shapes cut out down only one side."
Hopefully that would get Sheppard off his case now.
The Lantean night was warm and John left the windows open, so he could gaze at the stars for a while.
Working with Rodney on the jumper had been fun. They were still a little wary of each other, but then they always were after one of their off times.
He hadn't really learned much though. Atlantis had gotten Rodney adept at deflecting key questions when he couldn't outright lie, and John didn't want to push him too hard yet. The idea was to bring them back to being close enough for the scientist to confide in him again voluntarily, not push him away so Rodney went elsewhere, like he had when Katie was around, or tried to deal with whatever it was on his own, which if they turned out to be right, and there was any kind of a threat was not a good idea.
The one thing their few hours working together had confirmed, besides the fact that John was an idiot to ever let himself get into these stupid spats with Rodney, was that there was definitely something strange about the man. John couldn't put his finger on it, because Rodney had been much like his usual self, and the stuff about the arrow was a masterstroke, but John knew him too well to be convinced that everything was okay.
For now, he could only wonder if all the incidents really were related to his odd feeling about McKay, but if so, he had no idea how.
Rodney's face was screwed up tight with the effort of concentration, but still the lightly crumpled sheet of paper refused to budge an inch, a millimetre even. He sat back and sighed, giving up. It was pointless; it never worked no matter how hard he tried.
The upside of a relatively quiet period for Atlantis was that Rodney had time to try to get to grips with what was happening within himself. Common sense had been telling him for weeks now that he should visit the infirmary, or even just bring it up with Keller when he went to visit with Elizabeth, but he was scared. He knew this was different in some way to the last time this kind of thing had happened to him, but that didn't mean that the outcome wouldn't eventually be the same. He wondered if his reluctance to see a doctor had something to do with it being Keller and not Carson; it was possible he supposed. Physically, every post-mission examination told him he was fine, but they didn't examine brains unless head trauma was involved, and Rodney actively avoided getting hit on the head whenever possible. And anyway, this felt different and had right from the beginning. There were no physical symptoms: dust and pollen still made him sneeze, he wasn't even going to risk a lemon, he was no fitter than before, no faster, and all attempts to control any of his abilities met with absolute failure.
He'd even tried meditating some evenings, alone, in his quarters, to see if that helped any. Thought about asking Teyla to teach him properly, but it didn't seem right without Sheppard. Somehow, the colonel had gotten tied into the process as far as Rodney was concerned and any attempts to meditate without Sheppard felt incomplete. He knew it was stupid, but there was nothing he could do about it.
What was the point of it all anyway? Before he'd been able to do stuff, useful stuff, and that had helped him come to terms with what was happening. He couldn't understand any of the science now, but when Zelenka had gotten hurt because of him, he'd been able to repair the damage, bring the man back, make amends, save his life. That was important, useful. What the hell was the use of what he could do now? Bergstrom, and some others he'd apparently 'helped' somehow had all nervously come to his bench in the lab or his office and stammered their way through thank-you speeches. He'd scoffed and sent them packing, embarrassed by their grateful smiles, thanks, and, even worse, mentions of his kindness. Rodney McKay wasn't kind. He cared as much as the next man, or woman, but it would be a cold day in hell before he'd ever admit it.
On the upside, he was learning to handle some of it better. Intense emotions and feelings from his colleagues no longer came close to felling him, unless they caught him totally unawares. It meant the physical sensations associated with the assault of other people's emotions were also lessening. Other people's fear and worry no longer made him feel sick. Only his own fear and worry had that effect now, most of the time anyway.
He'd tried to remember how he'd blocked out other people's thoughts before, but either he was remembering wrong or there was nothing there to work with. Would it be easier if he talked to someone? Not a medical someone, just anyone, a friend. That idea made him snort and his gut suddenly churned. Carson was dead and Elizabeth was comatose in the infirmary, probably through his carelessness, both of them. This was karma; not that he believed in karma, but it seemed strangely fair that he should end up like this when the two people he could have talked to about it were gone through his fault.
No one in their right mind would ever describe Rodney McKay as a sympathetic person. Petty, arrogant, bad with people, selfish, sometimes extremely so, these were all phrases that had been used to describe the irascible scientist, even by those who considered themselves his friends. A select few knew how much and how deeply the man cared for his Atlantis family but it was a very select few.
So why was McKay standing in the middle of the crowded gate room awkwardly patting Doctor Jamieson's back while the young woman sobbed uncontrollably into his chest, turning his grey shirt black with her tears?
"Shh... He was a good man, Christine, and a good scientist."
The distressed woman nodded and hiccupped while McKay's big hands continued their clumsy yet gentle ministrations.
"Why don't we get you to your quarters, then you can lie down."
"I... want... I... I wanna go with him."
"Really?" Dead bodies were patently not McKay's idea of good company.
Christine nodded, more determined this time, spreading the moisture already soaking McKay's shirt around even further.
McKay looked questioningly at Doctor Keller. The doctor nodded sadly in response.
"Come on then. Doctor Keller says it's okay."
On the balcony overlooking the gate room, Sheppard and Carter stared as McKay took the young scientist by the arm as they followed the body of Doctor Neil Petersen to the infirmary. Further along the railing Teyla and Ronon exchanged concerned looks as they watched the sad little party leave and the clean up operation begin below.
"Did I just see what I thought I saw?" Carter asked, blue eyes wide with amazement.
Sheppard wasn't sure how to respond to that, and he knew from experience that neither Teyla nor Ronon would volunteer anything.
"Guess I must have done." Carter shook her head, answering her own question, taking Sheppard's silence for assent.
"We need to debrief AG3 as soon as Keller releases them and get the whole story." Sheppard was still trying to process what they had just seen with McKay and he wasn't prepared to comment until he had.
Carter nodded, dragging her mind back to the job at hand. "Order them to the conference room as soon as Keller's done."
"Yes Ma'am." The response sounded stiff even to him and John caught the slight grimace that Carter tried to hide at his reply. Everyone was still on awkward ground around each other, and the last thing they needed was supposedly routine missions going as south as this one had.
AG3 had come in 'hot' less than twenty minutes ago, Lieutenant Cross carrying the bleeding and frighteningly inert form of his team's scientist, Doctor Petersen. McKay had arrived in the gate room hot on the heels of the terrified Doctor Jamieson. The frantic radio calls to the infirmary had alerted everyone to the situation and a panicked Jamieson had left the lab in her worry over her fiancé, rushing to control tower and arriving just in time to see him die on the gate room floor, Doctor Keller unable to do anything to save him. McKay had arrived seconds later, taken one look at the situation and, to everyone's surprise, instead of displaying his usual tactlessness the CSO had literally hauled the grief-stricken young woman into his arms. Maybe he'd been intending to hand her off to a nurse to deal with, no one knew. Everyone had watched as a strange, almost pained, expression crossed McKay's face when his distraught staff member grabbed hold of his shirt and buried her face in his chest. They'd continued to watch in complete amazement as the normally unsympathetic scientist did his best to provide what little comfort he could while the medics prepared the body for transfer to the infirmary. And he succeeded too. Jamieson's hysterics had quietened in minutes thanks to whatever it was McKay had said.
"Perhaps Doctor McKay is drawing on his own recent experiences to help him deal with his colleague," Teyla said softly, coming up to stand with the two colonels, Ronon close behind. It was a feasible explanation, but not one anyone on Atlantis would find that easy to swallow. Especially not in view of some recent events.
Below them a couple of marines were mopping the blood off the gate room floor and in minutes the room looked as pristine as it had that morning, no sign of the city's most recent trauma anywhere.
Ronon nodded at Teyla's words and eventually so did Sheppard. Carter opened her mouth to say something, took one look at the other three faces around her and closed it again. McKay was still getting over Carson's death and Elizabeth's accident, all these people were. Not to mention that McKay had just lost his girlfriend so scathing comments about the scientist's usual lack of feelings or understanding were inappropriate, regardless of personal opinion.
"I'll check up on him later," Sheppard said firmly enough to pull all their minds off the CSO and back to the need to piece together the events that had lead to the death of yet another civilian.
It was little more than a couple of hours later when Sheppard found his team scientist right where he expected, in his lab, hunched over his laptop, fingers flying over the keys.
"Hey Rodney." Sheppard kept his voice low. Startling McKay may be fun most days, but today the scientist had lost one of his own and John was all too aware of how that felt.
McKay stopped typing and looked up.
"Ah, Colonel, what can I do for you?"
"Just came to see how you're doin', McKay"
"Oh. Well, fine, I guess." Surprisingly, Rodney left it at that.
"How's Doctor Jamieson?" John wasn't just being polite; Atlantis was a closed community where everyone was at least familiar, even if they weren't a close personal friend.
"Sleeping. Keller gave her a sedative. I called her, Keller that is, not Jamieson, to make sure it was the right thing to do. I mean, she'll only have to remember it all over again when she wakes up, but Keller assures me it was a mild sedative so all she'll do is sleep for a few hours, which should just make her able to cope better, you know, when she... when she has to..." The scientists voice trailed off and his gaze drifted from Sheppard's face to somewhere over the colonel's left shoulder.
John watched his teammate physically drag his attention back to the conversation and carry on.
"Simpson's staying with her, so will a couple more of the women she was friends with, that female marine, Sergeant Ortis, Ortez... She's gonna take over when Simpson needs to get back to the lab."
"That's good." John nodded, hesitated for a second or so then plunged right in. McKay was always best approached directly and honestly otherwise he either missed the point completely, or got offended, or thought you were trying to fool him in some way. It was best to just say what you wanted and cope with the response.
"Think you surprised us all a bit there too, Rodney." All John could do now was hope Rodney didn't get annoyed at being asked to explain himself. They may have mended their relationship, but things were still a little fragile and John didn't want to push Rodney away by pushing too hard. If he hadn't been suspicious before he was definitely suspicious now. There was something going on with McKay, and John didn't know if he should be worried or not.
McKay snorted. "I, ah, I surprised myself. I saw her bolt from the lab in a panic when the call came through about Petersen. Maybe her reaction shouldn't have been a surprise considering the relationship." Rodney's mouth twisted and he shrugged, "But I honestly thought she'd just get in the way if she made it to the gate room. I guess I was a bit angry at her running off like that and I just wanted to drag her back to the lab and tell her not to be so stupid, she could go visit when the doctors had done what they needed, but she had too much of a head start on me. Then when I got there and saw what had happened and that Petersen was dying, and then dead, I just wanted to stop her doing or saying something, something she'd end up regretting later so I hauled her off and..." The scientist blinked rapidly a few times. "I intended to hand her over straightaway to that red-haired nurse, Emmerson, Emson..."
"Nurse Elllison..." John supplied.
"Whatever" Rodney nodded and hand-waved the unimportant information aside. "To take care of, but then, then I realised I knew how she felt and, when she grabbed hold of me and the nurses were busy and, well it seemed like the right thing to do..."
McKay trailed off again and John wasn't entirely sure what to say. In the end, he decided a distraction was in order, so he punched Rodney gently on the shoulder.
"Dinner later?" Food was always a good way to get McKay out of his lab and stop him brooding for a while.
"Sure." Rodney managed a grin.
"1900 in the mess, don't be late."
"It's food, Colonel." That was more like McKay, and John was sure he spotted a brief eye roll to go with it.
"Later McKay." John grinned and tossed the scientist a jaunty wave as he strode out of the lab. The grin stayed in place until he was out of sight of McKay.
"How is he, Colonel?" Teyla spoke the second John closed the door to AG1's usual remote little lounge.
"Okay, I think. At least he seems okay." John shrugged and shuffled a little. He wasn't convinced McKay was okay at all, but he had no idea what was wrong either. Which was unusual considering he was talking about the man who usually let everything be known in great detail when things weren't right and why.
"Says he was angry at first and came after her because he thought she'd get in the way in the gate room, then he just didn't want her to do or say anything she might regret later."
That was a lesson they'd all learned but it got him raised eyebrows from both Teyla and Ronon. Learning the lesson and using it was not what anyone would expect from McKay, not when it didn't involve science in some way.
Teyla and Ronon both nodded at John to continue.
"He even questioned Keller giving her a sedative, because she'd only have to remember all over again when she woke up." John paused, teeth catching his bottom lip. "Maybe you were right, Teyla, maybe Carson..." That was as much as he could manage and John trailed off, biting his bottom lip once more.
Carson's death. Too close, too recent, too fresh for them not to be affected, even when they brought it up themselves, and for it to have been followed so quickly by Elizabeth's accident made everything so much harder for all of them, and perhaps for Rodney, hardest of all. The scientist wasn't so rich in personal friends that he could afford to lose two of those closest to him in a matter of weeks.
"Do you think what we saw today was linked to Rodney's other recent strange behaviour?" Not surprisingly it was Teyla who asked the question.
"Sure of it, one hundred percent, although I have no idea how it all ties up."
"Rodney seems quite calm in himself though, which is... surprising, considering how he usually reacts to certain kinds of situations."
"I know. That's what makes me sure there's something going on with him that he's not talking about. Right from back when he disobeyed a direct order when he and I got trapped by the Wraith, through everything since, the big fight with Carter over those rock things when that shelf fell down, Carter's kind of accusation about Elizabeth..."
"Doctor Bergstrom and the chocolate and telling doctor Mason to apologise..." Teyla added the next incident.
"The arrow on Curra and recently the tea bags with Doctor Johnson..."
John nodded then looked sharply at Ronon. "How come you know about the tea bags?"
John knew how fast gossip travelled in the city but Ronon didn't seem the sort to pay it that kind of detailed attention.
"It was McKay, when people talk about McKay I listen, just in case." Ronon tilted his head and shrugged.
"Oh." John couldn't think of anything suitable to add. Ronon took his friendships very seriously.
"Think it could be connected to the nightmares he still gets?"
John winced; he knew about the nightmares. He'd often been the one trying to wake Rodney from what were obviously terrifying dreams.
"Aren't they more about things that have happened to Rodney in the past, thing's that he worries about?" Teyla had done her share of watching over McKay's sleep.
"I thought so..." John looked at Ronon for confirmation.
"There's other stuff. Stuff we forget. Not just the Wraith, the ancestors, or the replicators, other personal stuff, that ancient device that gave him those super powers, Kolya, his sister, that planet he blew up... He still gets nightmares about all of that if you listen to what he says in his sleep.
Some of the things Ronon mentioned were times when they hadn't always been at their best in handling Rodney, making situations worse instead of better.
"And Carter doesn't help," Ronon added.
"She's not that bad."
Neither Teyla nor Ronon answered him.
"At least now you have mended your relationship with Rodney." It sounded like a simple statement of fact from Teyla, but John knew it was much more than that.
"I'll take care of him, I guess. He's gonna need someone after losing Petersen like that." There was no guessing involved: this was something John wouldn't let anyone else do. They may argue, sometimes badly, like they had recently, but when it came down to it John would move heaven and earth to take care of Rodney, and his friends, and teammates knew it.
John had promised Teyla and Ronon he'd take care of McKay, but before he embarked on his plan he knew he needed to take a few minutes to take care of himself first. To work out how he felt, so that he didn't go making things worse for his friend. He needed to get to the bottom of what was going on with McKay, but he couldn't just dive in and demand answers, not after the way things had been between them recently. John may not be the best with people but even he wasn't that insensitive. Rodney was still hurting over any number of recent events, starting with Carson's death and ending with Petersen's, with a whole raft of other stuff in between, not least of which was Elizabeth's accident and Katie's decision to return to Earth.
John's attitude toward Katie had always been awkward. Having spent years repressing his attraction to his own gender, denying it successfully enough to end up married, he'd thought he'd gotten used to seeing men he was attracted to pair up and settle down with the woman of their choice. He thought he'd learned to be happy for them, learned how to stay friends, learned how to deal with it all, but McKay had been different. Try as he might, John had never been able to shove Rodney and Katie into the right pigeonhole and leave them there. McKay just insisted on confounding him every which way. No matter how hard he tried to come to terms with McKay and Katie, nothing worked. In the end he'd taken to almost ignoring the relationship unless directly confronted by it and given no choice. Fortunately, Rodney wasn't one for flaunting his girlfriend; he tended to keep team and personal separate, only inflicting Katie on them occasionally and then usually at department or even citywide social events. He had a routine with Katie and hardly seemed to vary it until recently, but then she'd decided to go, leaving Rodney back where he had started: alone and probably a bit lonely. That post break-up not quite knowing what to do with yourself was a feeling John knew well. It was why, despite all McKay's Kirk allegations, he had tried to keep things light with anyone he dated in Atlantis. John had been around that block once too often, and, of course, it was hard to get seriously involved with someone else when the person you really wanted was only feet away and totally unaware you were interested in anything other than a weird friendship thing you had going between you.
John didn't want to be pleased Katie was gone. McKay was bound to be upset, whether he considered them 'serious' or not. No guy liked losing his girlfriend, but it was hard not to feel a tiny bit of satisfaction at having gotten Rodney back all to himself again. Usually John didn't mind sharing, but not McKay.
He'd spent part of the afternoon formulating his plan for the evening. He needed to spend a few days getting close to Rodney so that he could ask what was happening without scaring the scientist away.
Of course promising to take care of Rodney was one thing, but first John needed to find him and so far he was having no luck.
He'd tried the radio and got no reply; Rodney was off shift but he seldom went anywhere without his headset so John headed for McKay's quarters which was the next obvious choice. When there was no answer to his polite chime and his less polite banging, he over-rode the lock and went in. A quick check of all the rooms revealed the place to be McKay free, so he headed off to the science section of the city and went to scour the labs. McKay often found solace in his work and might have locked himself away with a personal project so the labs were the next obvious place.
So what else might a pissed off McKay do?
John went to the mess and drew another blank.
He called Zelenka while he was checking out the jumper bay. The Czech was grumpy but concerned.
"Ah, oh dear. He was here but about half an hour ago he said he was done for the day and left. I assumed he was going to get food, I should have checked."
There was silence for a few seconds then Zelenka spoke again.
"Have you tried the south pier, Colonel?"
"No but it's a good idea. Thanks, Radek, I'll try there."
The balcony was empty: it was more of an evening venue and it was still early, most people hadn't had dinner yet. John was trying not to get worried and break out some search teams. There were still plenty of perfectly reasonable places for Rodney to be. Turning he looked over the balcony rail down the length of the pier and smiled when he spotted a familiar figure turning easy circles on the skating rink.
He should have thought of it. It was obvious, and probably what Zelenka had meant when he said try the south pier.
John raced back to his quarters and grabbed his skateboard. There was no one about so he rode it all along the walkway and out onto the skate park. McKay had his MP3 player on, so John didn't interrupt, he just skated the jumps and ramps they had made for the skateboarders over on one side and kept a weather eye on the scientist. He didn't know how long Rodney had been out here, but he gave him about another half-hour before hurtling by, clapping the scientist on the shoulder and yelling "race you" as he steered towards the off park circuit.
McKay couldn't resist. It was a long-running competition that was surprisingly close. He grinned and took off after John, lengthening his glide and taking up a classic speed skating stance, and by the time they hit the first ramp Rodney had caught up.
Twenty minutes later they declared this round a draw as both slowed to a stop back on the rink, out of breath and very sweaty.
"Grab a shower and I'll get the beers." John pushed the scientist down the corridor towards his own quarters.
"Okay, see you in ten minutes, and it better be decent beer, Sheppard."
John didn't dignify that. He always kept a Molson or six for McKay and the man knew it. He just hoped Rodney would turn up and he wouldn't have another round of hunt the scientist today.
McKay was twenty minutes not ten, worrying John a little, but he arrived talking into his radio. John decided the latest crisis in the labs was a good enough excuse for the tardiness. He opened the beer and handed it to McKay just before the scientist tapped his ear piece off.
"Sorry about that. Thought I was going to have to cry off altogether, but Zelenka's handling it."
"Cool. Um... wanna watch a movie or..." He waved a DVD at McKay, grinning cheekily. "Do the latest four episodes of the new Doctor Who appeal any?"
Rodney made grabby hands at the DVD. John dodged backwards out of reach, chuckling as he went.
"You have the new Who and you didn't call me immediately?"
"Now, now, McKay, I only just opened my packages from Earth and found it."
"Well get on with it then. Keeping a geek from his Who should be a court-martial offence."
Rodney settled himself on John's bed, in his usual team movie night spot and glared at John, making hurry up motions with those eloquent hands that John was so not thinking about in all the wrong ways.
John put the DVD in his laptop and sat himself beside Rodney.
"Okay, here goes." He pressed play.
John knew he owed Mitchell big time for this. The DVD had arrived courtesy of a jumper that morning, although John hadn't been lying when he said he'd only just found it in with his personal items package. It was the perfect thing to help him with his plan.
They watched all four episodes back to back with only a short break halfway for John to fetch them some dinner and cake from the mess. A couple of beers a piece and John was declaring the evening a success.
"I like the new companion." Rodney raised his beer and took a long swallow.
"Thought you might. She's different, but, yeah, she is kinda cool."
Rodney sighed and suddenly looked a little melancholic. John held his breath, wondering if this was going to be the start of something.
"You okay?" he asked softly when the silence stretched a few seconds too long.
"Yeah. Just... that episode made me think how nice it would be to have a cat again. Oh, I know it's hardly practical here so don't think I'm gonna go off looking for a pet because I'm not, but it was nice you know, having a friend, someone to come home to, someone who..." The scientist trailed off, his head down, gazing into his beer.
"Hey, you've got friends, McKay." John couldn't resist shoulder-bumping Rodney gently. He liked touching the guy, Rodney had nice broad shoulders and he never seemed to mind.
"I know... I just don't seem to treat them very well..." Rodney's voice was no more than a whisper; John had to struggle to hear.
Crap. Rodney was feeling down and maudlin about Petersen, but this was about more than losing a valued colleague; Rodney always took that personally, but this wasn't the first time. No this was about Carson. Elizabeth, and John, and what had happened between him and Rodney recently. They had been four close friends, but now he and Rodney were the only two still standing. Carson was dead, and Elizabeth seemed to be heading to toward the same end.
Why did McKay have to take everything so much to heart? And why did John have to forget that every time he got irritated with the guy?
"You treat your friends just fine, McKay."
"Huh." John was fluent in McKay but he wasn't sure whether that was a sarcastic huh or a surprised huh.
"Yes you do and sometimes you surprise us all with people who aren't your friends too."
That won him another snort and John frowned, now wasn't really the time to pursue much of anything with McKay but John knew he had to keep trying.
"Look Rodney, neither of us is exactly stellar with the people stuff. Maybe we both jump to conclusions too fast sometimes, but we do okay between us yeah?"
Rodney nodded and favoured John with that quirky lopsided grin that had been doing funny things to John's insides for over three years now.
"Yeah. I guess." The scientist finished off his beer. "And now I should go. I'm doing the early sitting with Elizabeth tomorrow." Rodney stood and tossed his empty can in the trash on his way to the door.
"Thanks for the beer and the Doctor Who, Colonel and well, for... you know."
"Yeah, Rodney." John nodded and resisted reaching out for one last touch. There was no excuse and tomorrow was another day.
The doors closed behind the scientist leaving the room feeling empty.
"Dammit!" John swore. Oh, well, McKay had gotten the message and they'd had a good evening. Hadn't they?
John took the rest of his beer out on to his small balcony once Rodney had left.
No way was he going to take advantage of a vulnerable, hurting Rodney. No way. Guilt knifed him in the chest, the sensation almost physical.
How much of that hurt was he responsible for?
Rodney was upset about Petersen; the skating alone, brooding demonstrated that. There was no way McKay could blame himself for Petersen's death, but John knew he would. Petersen had previous field experience and had been on AG3 for the last two years at least. It had been an unavoidable death in the field and John already had three marines beating themselves up over losing their scientist and their friend. Even now Lorne was on AG3 watch just in case.
John had always been surprised at how good Rodney was at picking up the pieces when life all but fell apart for him. Resilience only came with experience and it made John wonder just how many times Rodney had had to pick himself up, dust himself off and move on before he came to Pegasus.
After Duranda when things had finally gotten on to an even keel, he'd turned up at John's door one evening and asked if they could take a jumper out, just the two of them. It had been something they did together sometimes. Desperate to reconnect with his friend but unable to initiate anything himself John had grabbed at the chance and... He could hear McKay's voice in his head as plain as if he were still standing there...
"Thanks... for this... I... well I didn't want to lose this after... and I thought we might so... thanks."
The following week John had made sure he was the one doing the asking and they'd taken the jumper out to watch the sun set over the city. The look in Rodney's eyes that night had almost shattered John into a million pieces and he'd had to fight not to do something that would have embarrassed them both. It was something they still did, when they got chance.
Almost without his realising it, John's gaze drifted over to Rodney's balcony. The sun was going down fast and he could only just make out the rail and the furniture that had appeared soon after he and Katie had gotten together.
The lights in Rodney's quarters were on so he'd gone straight there after leaving John and not to the labs as John had feared he might.
A few minutes later, John was just finishing his beer when he saw the door to Rodney's balcony open and the scientist, now clad in sweats and a t-shirt, wandered out. He flopped into one of the chairs as the balcony lights came on and then dimmed so all John could see was a silhouette. He went back inside his own room and fetched a chair, setting it where he had a decent view of the scientist; John sat down and put his feet up on the rail.
A couple of hours later the silhouette that was Rodney stood and shambled back into his quarters. The balcony lights went off followed minutes later by the lights in the sleeping area.
Time for John to turn in.
Carter grabbed herself a beer and strolled out onto the balcony that ran the length of her quarters. She was getting too used to this. The underground bunker that housed the SGC was going to seem like a prison when she went back.
And she was going back. Unlike Weir and Sheppard and probably even McKay she had no desire to retire to Atlantis. The Pegasus base was a stepping stone to bigger and better things, a General's stars and preferably soon. No way was she getting involved with the people here. She had her own team and her own friends back on Earth. Atlantis was a job, nothing more. It was not SG1 and was never going to be.
She had her reasons for coming here, but they were hers and there was no need for anyone in Atlantis to know what they were.
It was another of those lovely, balmy Lantean evenings. She'd heard several of the marines say that it was easy to simply fall asleep outside for the entire night and suffer no ill effects in the morning. They were right, a few times she'd had to force herself back inside to bed, remind herself that this wasn't some lazy hazy vacation night out at Jack's cabin. Okay not going there, that route led to memories and feelings she had come here to escape. Jack, Daniel, Mitchell, Vala, the whole stupid mess, how could it all still be so painful even in another galaxy?
The sun had gone down in a fiery glow and the city was lighting up from the inside. She had some personal letters from Earth to read so the balcony and the beer made a good combination. The letters were bittersweet, it was good to hear from people, her people, her friends, but it brought up memories even more sharply, memories she wasn't sure she wanted to face ever again.
Looking up she saw the light on McKay's balcony. The man was available now, or was he? A glance across towards Sheppard's quarters showed the colonel out on his own balcony, chair facing McKay's, feet up on the rail, keeping watch.
Did McKay have any idea?
They all looked after him in some way or other, but he and Sheppard reminded her so much of two others.
It was ironic.
Same shit different galaxy.
There were times when John Sheppard was the most frustrating man in the galaxy, two galaxies and he, Meredith Rodney McKay, was the biggest jerk. He knew John meant everything he'd said tonight. Absolutely knew it. And he'd wanted to say so much more, to tell John thanks for more than just the Doctor Who episodes and the beer, but for being there, for understanding everything and for not making a production number out of it.
That was rich wasn't it? Rodney McKay not wanting to make a production number out of something. He was famous for his dramas and melodramas, but that was the thing about Sheppard, he knew the difference, knew when and when not. He always had. For three years now Sheppard had always been able to tell when Rodney genuinely didn't care and when something was too important to even talk about.
And that was what made him so dangerous when Rodney's guard was down after a bad day like today.
No one liked losing people, especially the good one's and especially on missions that were supposed to be routine: peaceful and safe. Although they all knew 'safe' was a relative term here in the Pegasus Galaxy.
Okay, so maybe he had a bit of a soft spot for Christine Jamieson and her fiancé. The pair had met on Atlantis a year ago and developed one of those awkward geeky relationships that even Rodney couldn't remain oblivious to. Everyone thought they were terribly cute and sweet. Rodney just rolled his eyes and let them get on with it. Why should he care?
And if he didn't care, what in Pegasus had prompted him this morning? He'd been doing okay keeping everything quiet. There might be a few funny looks and his team might be suspicious but no one had said anything yet. Someone would now though. The entire gate room had seen his performance with Jamieson, in full detail and glorious technicolour.
Sheppard had been tactful tonight. He hadn't asked. He seemed to have accepted Rodney's explanation from this morning, but Rodney knew that acceptance was only temporary. Sheppard wasn't an idiot; it wouldn't take him long to add everything together and come banging on Rodney's door demanding answers and a trip to see Keller or Heightmeyer as well. Should he stop putting off the inevitable and just go himself? The worst that could happen was that he'd end up looking a fool, and that certainly wasn't anything new.
It was a few minutes later when Rodney realised he hadn't made a move and was still sitting out on his balcony he knew he wasn't going to a doctor until either his condition or one of his friends forced him to.
Rodney hadn't been lying to John when he'd told him he'd surprised himself more than anyone that morning.
The sheer weight of the young woman's heartbreak when the man she was only weeks away from marrying had died in front of her had hit him like a hammer blow, then held him rooted in place, filling his whole being with a desperate, desperate need to help. The sensation, the feeling, had been as much physical as mental or emotional.
He couldn't have prevented his response to Jamieson any more than he could stop being a genius. The tears, the soaking wet shirt, sticky and unpleasant, the not knowing what to say, or do, none of it had mattered. Some strange instinct he'd never had before kicked in and made him act, and act in a manner that deep down he'd known had helped.
Why had he done what he'd done?
Rodney had no idea.
One thing he did know was that whatever he had done for Christine had helped. Doctor Keller and two very surprised nurses had told him so and what was more...
Rodney himself had felt it.
He'd felt it at the time and he knew it now. Just like he'd known about Teyla not being mad at him over Elizabeth the way Sheppard was. Just as he'd known the shelf falling had been down to him. Just as he'd known how to handle Mason and Bergstrom, Johnson and any number of other little incidents in the lab. Just as he'd known what to do when the Wraith had himself and John pinned down on that planet. Just as he'd known how to deflect that arrow. To say he'd saved Sheppard's life again sounded melodramatic and egotistical, not that that mattered; he was entitled to his ego, but he had saved Sheppard that day.
Would he have been able to do it for anyone else?
Rodney hoped so, but after the way Sheppard had been tonight he couldn't help wondering if he'd been able to turn the arrow because of the way he felt about John.
And how was that? How did he feel about Sheppard?
Tonight had been good, really good. John had done everything right, done everything Rodney could have asked to help him take his mind off losing a scientist and the way he'd been with Christine.
John was simply being a good friend and a good officer, nothing more. If Katie had still been here he probably wouldn't even have bothered... or would he?
Katie. Rodney sighed.
He'd been scrupulous about Katie. Careful to ensure he never even so much as flickered at Sheppard while he and Katie were a couple. Pushed his perpetual attraction to the irritating flyboy so far deep into his well of feeling he sometimes wondered if it had drowned and gone for good. Which would be a good thing, surely. Then Sheppard looked at him or smiled at him in that 'this is all just for you' way he had sometimes and there it was large as life, shining like the sun. John Sheppard and the unfathomable, unstoppable magnetic attraction the man had for one Meredith Rodney McKay, PhD times two, who should know better, for so many reasons. Sheppard was so far out of his league as to make the whole idea laughable anyway.
It never helped that he knew something with John was possible. A long time ago one slightly drunken, slightly maudlin, slightly homesick evening when they'd all expected to be dead the next day, John had admitted to him and Teyla that he liked guys maybe even more than girls, but he'd always wanted to fly so... He'd allowed himself one final fling before the academy and then ruthlessly refused to even consider his real nature.
Teyla had thought it was sad. The Athosians valued love in all its forms. Those who preferred members of their own sex often fathered or bore children because of their importance in the Pegasus Galaxy and then pursued happy fulfilling relationships with their chosen same-sex partner who usually shared in the upbringing of the child or children. There were few taboos once interest was established and a relationship begun.
Rodney had been surprised at John's revelation for all of about ten seconds then he'd decided that he wasn't really surprised at all. He wasn't sure why, and he'd ruthlessly stamped on any and all ideas of testing the water with his friend. He wasn't prepared to risk what he had with Sheppard, weird and sometimes hurtful, though it was.
Tonight however, he was just grateful. Grateful for John's understanding, his humanity, his obvious concern, and mostly for the way he hadn't brought anything up directly, just shared his beer and his DVD and let Rodney handle things his own way.
He thought he saw his friend, he was back to thinking of John as his friend after tonight, out on his own balcony but it was too dark to be sure.
He put a call in to check on Jamieson and on finding she was asleep took himself inside and off to bed.
John was playing hunt the Rodney again and the novelty value of the game was rapidly wearing off.
There'd been another incident in the physics lab that morning involving McKay. It seemed like nothing serious at the time, but there was enough continuing strange behaviour to have Zelenka cornering John again to see if he was making any progress with finding out what was happening with McKay.
Things only became serious when Rodney left the lab soon after lunch telling Zelenka he didn't want to be disturbed for anything other than threat of their imminent demise, and Radek called John.
Maybe it was all to do with Petersen dying yesterday, maybe it was something more, but Radek had to supervise the lab so perhaps the colonel could go find out what was wrong with McKay. Find out what was really wrong with McKay this time and not be fobbed off with excuses or dissembling, please.
John's patience was running out and he was determined to track the missing physicist down and get some answers.
It seemed reasonable to assume that Rodney wasn't entirely over Petersen yet, these things took time, no one knew that better than John, but it wasn't the first time Rodney had lost a scientist and the gentle approach wasn't getting them anywhere.
He arrived outside McKay's door and checked the LSD. According to the Ancient technology Rodney was home... in the middle of the afternoon, leaving a busy lab and a slew of projects and scientists all vying for his attention.
John activated the door chimes and when there was no response he did what he always did and resorted to pounding on the door.
He pounded some more.
"I said go away."
"I'm not stopping until you let me in, McKay."
The doors finally opened.
"What part of go away do you not understand, Colonel?"
John slid past Rodney into the man's quarters. The door closed behind him, and when he turned to look Rodney was standing just inside it arms crossed and glaring.
"This better be important, Sheppard."
"So..." Rodney motioned for him to get on with it.
"People are worried, McKay. We've let things go on far too long without saying anything, thinking you'd tell us eventually."
"Let what go on far too long?" Rodney might have won an acting award when he was younger but sometimes the skill failed him completely.
"Everything, McKay. You've been off for weeks and it's not because of Elizabeth, or Carter, or even Petersen's death. This is about you. I want... no... I need to know what's going on, Rodney." John raised his hand to forestall the scientist's immediate denial. "No! Don't even start, I'm not stupid. I know there's something else going on here, going on with you and there has been for a while."
Rodney seemed to curl in on himself. His arms were no longer folded; they were wrapped around his middle, hugging his body tight. He was physically holding himself together. John fought the sudden urge to wrap his own arms round his friend. It might make things worse and he certainly didn't want to do that.
"Look if you tell me, you know I won't say anything. I might even be able to help."
Rodney walked back to where he'd obviously been sitting before John arrived and picked up his discarded laptop.
"I was writing letters for Petersen. Christine, Doctor Jamieson, wants to take them with her when she takes the body back... She said she wanted to take them to his parents herself, so she could explain. She said she wanted to tell them about me."
John swallowed. Rodney looked so lost. Almost as lost as he had when Carson had died.
"Why? Why would she want to do that?"
"Because you're this genius scientist guy they both work for?"
Rodney's mouth twisted in a funny little grimace. "If she weren't taking her fiancés body home I would agree with you wholeheartedly. I mean, why wouldn't she want to tell people all about me, if it was simply about brilliant science, but this isn't about physics Colonel, even I can work that much out."
"Sometimes it's a way of keeping connections alive. Remember Carson's funeral, his family wanted to know as much about us personally as they did about what Carson had been doing with his life." John wasn't sure the explanation had worked until Rodney nodded.
"She thanked me, you know, for yesterday."
John didn't move, or even blink.
"Said I helped. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Let's face it, even with Katie I wasn't exactly stellar at the whole human interaction stuff and she actually wanted to be with me, but yesterday it was like I had no choice. I had to do something. I mean me? Unsympathetic, socially inept Rodney McKay. I couldn't stop it. The way she felt, the pain and the devastation, almost brought me to my knees in the gate room and if it was doing that to me, then it had to be nearly killing Christine."
John still didn't speak but the alarm bells were all going off now. He'd expected some kind of a breakdown, certainly since Zelenka had tackled him about Rodney the first time, but this wasn't quite the kind of breakdown he'd expected. Rodney usually blamed himself for any scientist's deaths, managing by some twisted McKay logic to bring responsibility back to himself even if he'd been nowhere near at the time, like with Petersen yesterday. John knew he himself was no better about his own people, it was another thing they had in common. However, right now, Rodney's worry for Doctor Jamieson was so intense John was sure he could see the man trembling under the weight of what he'd felt, was still feeling.
"Rodney..." He crossed to the scientist's side, but Rodney waved him off with a flailing hand.
"There's nothing you can do... nothing anyone can do... I already know that. It's like before... well no that's wrong its not exactly like before because I can't help it, can't control it and before I could and it was cool... well no it wasn't cool because of what it meant but doing it was cool and..."
"Rodney!" John ignored the still flailing hand and stepped closer to his friend. His insides were churning. Was Rodney saying what John thought he was saying? And hadn't John known all along? He'd just refused to join up the dots, make the connections. He could see they'd been there. He'd just been refusing to put the pieces together.
"I mean it isn't as strong as before because I can't do the same things... its just all the sensing, the feelings, I've been trying to block them out... trying to deal with them on my own... it's... well it's gone on much longer this time but I'm okay, I think..."
"What has? Rodney!"
The shaking was really visible now, Rodney had wrapped his arms around himself again as he spoke to try and stop it but John could still see the tremors wracking the scientist's solid frame. He reached out and grasped the closest arm, spinning Rodney round so he could see his face properly.
And there it was. Laid out right in front of him in Rodney's huge blue eyes.
Realisation didn't suddenly hit John so much as roll slowly over him like a slow-motion tidal wave, complete with sound effects and CGI.
He blinked once and shook his head to clear the rushing in his ears and the feeling of panic that was rising from his belly to his throat.
He'd seen that look only once before and seeing it again scared him witless.
Back then he'd messed up, missed his chance and regretted it later when it was almost too late, but not this time... this time...
It was a risk, probably the biggest risk he'd ever take, and in Sheppard's case that meant big, but John knew this time he had to act. If he couldn't act now when Rodney was like this he was never going to be able to.
Rodney was talking a mile a minute again, but John wasn't listening any more. All he could hear was the ever-increasing panic, the fear, the worry, the horror, the bewilderment, the need and this time he didn't hesitate, he just stepped a little closer and hauled Rodney into his arms, holding him tight, pressing him as close as possible to his own body. John was no expert at hugging but he thought Ronon would have been proud of him for this one. It was as full on as you could get.
The effect was astonishing.
Rodney went silent and just melted, literally. His arms came up and he moulded himself to John's body, hanging on as though his life depended on it.
Maybe it did.
John lifted a hand and gently guided Rodney's head down onto his shoulder. It fitted there perfectly. Was that a sign? Was this meant to happen?
John thought perhaps it was.
He could still feel the faint tremors running through the physicist.
"Breathe Rodney, just breathe."
John had no idea how long they stood like that. He just concentrated on listening to Rodney's rasping, wheezing dry sobs turn gradually into slow deep breaths. Little by little the trembling slowed until the hug was less desperate, more comforting.
Rodney lifted his head to look at John's face.
Suddenly John knew this had been inevitable right from the start. It was as if everything between them, all the laughter and the banter, all the arguments and the hurt, all the friendship and the saving each others lives had all been leading up to this one moment. Here, now...
Later John was never really sure, but he always thought he moved first.
The kiss was hesitant and soft to begin, just a gentle press of lips for a while before John asked for more and Rodney gave it, willingly, parting his lips to grant John access, opening himself to whatever followed and what followed was a long slow exploration that seemed to last forever.
"Oh," was all Rodney could say when they finally broke apart.
"Yeah." Well at least it was a word.
"Did we?" Rodney's eyes were wide, maybe even a little frightened.
"Hmm. It was good?"
"Yeah, Rodney, it was, very good. The best."
"Umm... shall we?" The fear gave way to a little twinkle now.
"Sit down first?"
John guided them to Rodney's bed.
They kissed for a long time.
"I still want to know everything that's been going on, Rodney."
Rodney sat up, and John couldn't resist kissing the tip of his nose, just because it was there and he could.
It made Rodney kind of giggle and look startled and flustered, and John decided he liked that look on Rodney, but then he went serious again.
"I know." Rodney sighed and looked down at his knees. "Beer?"
"Yeah, why not."
Rodney stood and fetched them both a beer. He hesitated a little about where to sit after he'd handed John his bottle, so John grabbed hold of an arm and pulled the scientist down beside him again. It worked perfectly; Rodney took several long swallows then leaned against John's shoulder. It was nice.
"One thing though." Okay that wasn't so nice: Rodney had sat up again to carry on speaking. "Is this... I mean... Are we... Are we a couple now or something?" When it came out it came out in a rush, complete with waving beer can, big blue eyes and that stunned bunny expression that John could now admit that he'd always found incredibly endearing.
"Not sure about the or something part but... well..." John's teeth found his bottom lip as he nodded and shrugged, hoping this wasn't one of Rodney's obtuse days. "You okay with that?"
Fortunately, today Rodney was being far from obtuse.
"Oh thank god! Yes, definitely, please, if that's okay?"
John grinned, grabbed a handful of Rodney's shirt and pulled him close again.
Rodney extricated John's fingers from his shirtfront.
"Good, but less pulling on the clothing please, I don't have an endless supply of shirts you know."
John chuckled. "You can always borrow some of mine and..." He leered and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "If you're really good I'll pull something else later if you like."
Rodney blushed prettily and looked at John with wide blue eyes.
John had to get a grip of himself: Rodney was just too appealing like that, it made him want to do things. Good things, but he needed to sort other things out with Rodney first.
Rodney solved the problem by getting a hold of himself and punching John playfully on the arm. "Oh... you..." A pause and then, "Hey, why not now?"
"Talking remember? I want to know what's going on, then we can do whatever you want."
"What are we? Fourteen-year-old girls? Yes, Rodney, cross my heart." John made the requisite hand gesture to go with his words. "Now, talk to me."
He tried for a glower in response to Rodney's rolled eyes. He wasn't sure he managed it, but something had the desired effect because Rodney took another swig of his beer then settled down against John's shoulder again and started talking.
"It started a while ago, I'm not really sure when but, it's like an itch, in my head."
Okay this wasn't sounding good. Anything that affected Rodney's head was always worrying. Tentatively John rested a hand on Rodney's thigh. Rodney looked down then gave him a little smile, leaning in a bit more before he carried on.
"I ignored it at first but soon that became impossible. I'm conscious of how everybody feels, all the time. It's like wading through honey, all sticky and messy. I can't help it and I can't stop it. It's not mind reading, might be easier if it were. Its... just... feelings all the time, everybody's. Did you know that somebody in the city is always scared of something? Even when it's quiet. Some of them are even scared of me, not that that's a bad thing of course but... now I can feel their fear... its... distracting at best, downright interfering at worst."
John nodded, mainly because he didn't know what to say.
"There's other stuff too."
John squeezed Rodney's thigh gently.
"Little stuff, only sometimes it's bigger."
"Yeah, like what?"
Rodney looked down, his face going pink again.
"The shelf 'n' th'arrow... other stuff too."
It was a whispered mumble, but John was close enough to catch it.
"Oh, Rodney." John hugged him close again. It was easier this time, and even when he let go Rodney stayed leaning against him, his head automatically coming to rest on John's shoulder. He could get used to this. Hopefully Rodney would let him.
It all made sense now, well in terms of what had been happening. The question was why.
"Well, thanks, anyway."
"Seem to remember that arrow you just mentioned was headed straight at me."
"Oh." Rodney swallowed. "I was so scared. Couldn't yell at you to move... there wasn't time."
"So you moved the arrow instead."
"Seems like it."
John turned a little and kissed Rodney's hair.
"Like I said, thanks."
"Welcome." Rodney sighed against John's neck. "But I have no control over it. That's the problem. I've tried, sat for hours trying and I can't even move so much as a crumpled ball of paper. I can't work out what I do or why it happens... so... next time... what if I can't do anything? I mean how can I if I don't know how I do it?"
John lifted his hand and stroked Rodney's hair gently.
"Shhh... We'll figure it out somehow, Rodney. We always do."
"What if this time we can't?"
"We will," John said firmly. "We will."
"Yeah and the last time something like this happened ended so well for me."
"Actually it did. You're still here. I didn't lose you then and I'm not gonna lose you now." So where were all these words coming from and since when had he felt like this about Rodney?
Since forever, it felt like.
"Why didn't you tell someone, Rodney?" John just managed to avoid saying why didn't you tell me, he knew that with his behaviour up until recently, he'd have been the last person Rodney wanted to tell about anything let alone something as personal and frightening as this.
"Dunno, scared. Don't think I wanted to know really. I knew it wasn't the same but I didn't want to know how bad it was. If I was gonna die I think I just wanted it to happen, no massive build up this time, you know?"
John sighed and nodded. Positive thinking wasn't always Rodney's strong suit.
"I mean what if it is like last time? What if... what if I'm gonna die, again?"
John refused to think about that right now.
"It's different from last time, you've said it yourself."
"But what if it isn't?"
John's tone wasn't especially sharp but he felt Rodney flinch, and instantly felt bad.
"Sorry." He hugged Rodney close again and planted another soft kiss in his hair, not really sure who he was trying to comfort.
"First thing we need to do is get you to the infirmary and get your head examined."
"Can't we do the other stuff first?" Big blue eyes gazed at him from beneath long lashes.
It was a good try. Rodney really did look very appealing but John knew he was only trying to delay the inevitable and he didn't want the first time he loved Rodney to be a delaying tactic for either of them.
"Nice try McKay but no!" He stood up, pulling the scientist with him. "I told you, later. Now come on. It's only a chat with Doctor Keller and probably a scan, Rodney and I promise I'll be there all the time to hold your hand."
Rodney snorted. "Very funny, Colonel." But at least now they were headed for the infirmary.
Doctor Keller looked at the image of Rodney's brain on the big screen and hmmed to herself in that infuriating way doctor's had. Rodney had spent the last hour describing his 'symptoms' to her and Kate Heightmeyer, and though Keller seemed to understand why he'd been so scared to come and say anything, that didn't lessen the scolding she gave him about being wilfully careless with himself.
"Well that's interesting."
"What is?" They both spoke at the same time, but Rodney's tone was much sharper than John's.
"Well..." She turned the screen so Rodney could see it too. "The red areas, as you know, are the areas of the brain you are currently using and... well... these small red dots, here, here and here are definitely area's that you weren't using when we last had to scan your brain, Doctor."
"Oh god, I knew it... It's happening again isn't it? I can't believe it's happening again." Rodney's expression grew panic-stricken and John dropped a hand to his forearm, gently stroking his thumb over the inside of Rodney's wrist in an attempt to calm and reassure.
Rodney's weren't the only eyes that widened at the doctor's words.
"How do you mean? You just said my brain functions were expanding again so how..."
"Let the Doc speak, Rodney." John squeezed Rodney's arm once then moved his hand away, wishing all the time it didn't have to be like that. He felt a little weak at the knees so he rested his hand on the bed, as close as he dare to Rodney. It wasn't ideal but it would have to be enough for now.
Word that Rodney was in the infirmary having a brain scan had obviously spread into the city because at that moment Ronon and Teyla came hurrying in.
"S'wrong with McKay?" Ronon was obviously in no mood for messing about.
Doctor Keller smiled.
"Well timed, Ronon, Teyla." Ronon folded his arms and pinned the doctor with a glare that said, get on with it, louder than any words.
"I guess you guys know Doctor McKay hasn't been feeling himself recently, so on the screen are the results of the brain scan we've just done.
Suddenly half the infirmary stood or sat at attention as Carter rushed in. Word had obviously reached the command level now. She took in the scene having evidently heard what Keller had just said.
"Carry on, Doctor." Carter wasn't messing about either.
Keller nodded, but before she could start again Doctor Zelenka came hurrying in. Clearly the news had made it as far as the labs. He didn't speak just went and stood beside Teyla and waited for Doctor Keller to continue.
Keller gave it a few more seconds before speaking just in case anyone else wanted to join them.
"Assuming we're all here now. It seems that Doctor McKay's brain function is indeed expanding, but before you all start worrying that it's like it was after the incident with the ancient ascension device let me assure you that although the expansion is similar, the rate at which it is occurring is much slower. So slow in fact that by the time it reaches a dangerous level, or an 'ascension' level, Doctor McKay would be, oh at least about three hundred years old."
"How do you know it's going to continue at this rate though?" Rodney was there with the questions while the rest of his friends were still busy being relieved by the doctor's words.
"Well, we can't guarantee anything, but the 'symptoms' you've described, although similar to what happened to you before, are nothing like as dramatic. You aren't levitating your friends, Doctor McKay, and honestly, you show none of the physiological changes that you presented last time; your DNA is still your DNA, Doctor. You are still very much, you."
John smiled a little "I'm me. I don't know how not to be me." He knew now he never wanted Rodney to be anyone other than Rodney. He didn't want the man he loved to change too much. He wanted Rodney with all his quirks and foibles and faults and insecurities and vulnerabilities. All the bits that made Rodney who and what he was. John loved all of them. Probably always had.
"So not dramatically evolving then?" Rodney's hands were flying, finishing with pointing both index fingers at his brain making John want to chuckle out loud with relief.
"Not in that way, no."
"So what is it?"
Doctor Keller grinned at Doctor Heightmeyer who took up the explanation.
"Well we can't be sure of course, but everything you've described, Rodney, would seem to indicate that the areas of your brain slowly coming on line again are those that govern empathic responses. Some telekinesis, when you get stressed, but from what you've said, I'd say you've... become an empath, and a pretty strong one too."
There was a collective virtual thud as jaws all around hit the floor, Rodney's included.
His eyes went impossibly wide. He opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again when, like everyone else, he couldn't think of anything to say.
Typically it was a frowning Ronon who spoke into the stunned silence.
"What's an... empath?"
And Kate who responded. "An empath is someone who is incredibly sensitive to, and able to read the feelings and emotions of those around them. Someone who often can help alleviate emotional stress, diffuse difficult situations, help people cope with traumatic events, that kind of thing."
"And McKay's turned into one of these, empaths?" The frown turned to incredulity.
"It seems like it, yes."
Ronon looked from Kate to Rodney and back again a few times to be certain they weren't all pulling some huge joke. Then it started as a low slow rumble, morphed into a chuckle a few seconds later, before finally becoming an outright belly laugh.
It wasn't long before everyone else joined in, except Rodney of course. He just sat there looking suitably fed up and very put upon.
"Oh that's right let's all laugh at the guy who can... tell the second you all get scared, or angry... or even amused..."
John gave Rodney's shoulder a squeeze, too relieved to even manage a suitable comeback.
"Well you gotta admit, McKay, it's kinda funny." Ronon managed to get out between chortles.
Rodney let out a long-suffering sigh and looked up at John.
John stifled his own laughter and smiled down at his scientist.
When he let himself, Rodney could feel the relief and the elation that underpinned any visible surface amusement and it wasn't only from John. All his friends were radiating happiness at him, because of him. It was kind of amazing and overwhelming to feel it so clearly, especially from John. Normally John was very difficult to read even with his added abilities unless he was angry of course.
Actually, right now, John just wanted everyone to go away then he could kiss Rodney senseless, and maybe do a lot more besides kissing, but that wasn't going to happen any time soon so he settled for feeling happy and relieved and happy and yeah amused a little too, and happy and was Rodney getting the happy part yet?
It took a minute for Rodney to smile.
"Well at least I'm not dying."
Teyla was beaming. She took Rodney's hand as the scientist moved to sit up. "It is good to know that you are well, Rodney, we have been quite concerned these last few weeks. Your behaviour was a little... unusual and at least now we know the reason. If you need any help..."
Rodney nodded and went a little pink. Teyla often had that effect. "Thank-you I'll probably be knocking on your door screaming for it within the week, when the idiots in the lab have driven me insane being so scared of me they can't do anything right."
Teyla's laugh was warm, her brown eyes dancing with affection. "You will be quite welcome, Rodney, you know that."
"Yes, yes I do." Rodney nodded firmly, because now of course he did know it. "Again, thanks."
Teyla stepped back and looked at Ronon.
"Yeah, we left a bunch of marines mid-session in the gym." He chuckled again and clapped Rodney on the shoulder nearly knocking him off the infirmary bed. "See you at dinner McKay yeah?"
Neither Ronon nor Teyla missed the swift glance Rodney aimed at John before the two nodded.
They left with Ronon still chuckling.
"So, we need to ensure that all shelves are triple-bolted to the racks from now on yes?" Zelenka's eyes were twinkling with mirth.
"Oh ha ha, very funny, Radek."
"I think what happened with the shelf will prove to be a very rare occurrence." Kate's eyes were twinkling too.
"This is good, although with Rodney I assume you mean rare as in at least once a week. Is about how often he manages monumental temper tantrum like the one that brought down the shelf."
Rodney looked ready to explode. Zelenka decided now was a good time to leave.
"I am going now. I am glad you are okay, Rodney. I do not want your job and should anything happen to you Colonel Carter is mean enough to insist I take it."
Carter opened her mouth to protest but managed only a squeak before Zelenka continued.
"She will say it is an honour, she is wrong, it is not an honour at all, it is a monumental pain in the ass and I do not want to be shot at by Wraith."
Rodney fell about laughing at the expression on Carter's face as Zelenka turned and scurried out of the infirmary, carefully hiding a gleeful smile.
"You're slipping if that's the best you can do, Sam." Rodney couldn't resist. "He's a sly one. Surprised you haven't worked it out already."
"Yeah... so I see."
Carter took a minute to recover from this somewhat unexpected side of Doctor Zelenka before she turned to the two medical doctors, her expression suddenly serious.
"He is gonna be okay isn't he?"
John tensed at the obvious concern from Carter: who was she to be so concerned about Rodney? Then he felt something brush the back of his hand, so briefly and so light he wasn't entirely sure he'd felt it, until he looked down at Rodney. The tension fled. John found himself almost feeling sorry for his CO. Of course she had a right, just not as much of one as John did now.
"Yes, Colonel, he is."
"So why has this happened now?" It was a good question from Carter, John had to grant her that at least.
"You've heard of muscle memory, Colonel?" Heightmeyer left this explanation to Doctor Keller.
Carter, John and Rodney all nodded.
"Then think of it like that. I can't be sure of course, but... I think that despite the DNA reset that prevented Doctor McKay from ascending, his brain, probably because he uses more of it than normal, has remembered some of the things it used to be able to do, and the areas of the brain that control the next set of abilities in the evolutionary hierarchy have gradually woken up. We can monitor the rate of expansion, but it's my view that it will probably be another six months before even the Ancient scanner registers little more than the slightest change, if that. We just don't evolve that fast so this may even be it, as far as it ever goes, good as it ever gets."
Rodney sighed. "Why couldn't it have been the part of my brain that invented the new math that woke up, that would have been good, well at least it would have been useful."
"Sorry, Rodney." Kate looked sympathetic. "Expanded brain function isn't something we see much of, hardly any in fact. My guess is that there is a fairly fixed sequence to it, but I'm only basing that on the fact that there are examples of strong empaths among earth humans already. Real empaths, like you, are very rare, but some do exist. Most people have an element of it in their make up to some extent, but few exist that can actually read feelings and emotions the way you can and with such unerring accuracy as to be able to help people deal with them."
"Maybe you should take up counselling, McKay." Carter grinned as she made the suggestion.
"Oh and you have met me haven't you?" Rodney's hands started flying. "In case you haven't, hello, I'm Doctor Rodney McKay and I don't do counselling, I do physics. Physics, astrophysics and engineering, in fact I'm a genius in those fields and many others too, but, I do not do people. Okay?"
John had to fight not to burst out laughing again.
Carter lost her own battle and giggled. The sound startled John, but at least Rodney was smiling again.
"Keep me posted, Doctor Keller, and I'll leave McKay in your very capable hands, Colonel Sheppard."
John registered Keller's "of course, Colonel." But it was the look Carter gave him just before she left that made him wonder.
"Are we done? Can I go now?" Rodney was anxious to be out of the infirmary.
John shook his head as if trying to clear it while Keller answered Rodney.
"We'll keep an eye on you each week to start with, Doctor McKay, just to keep your mind at rest as much as anything, but I really don't see anything to worry about."
"I'll find you some reading material on empaths, Rodney, and maybe you should come and see me?" Kate raised an eyebrow, one that wasn't taking no for an answer.
"Thanks and yeah, sure, whatever.
"Okay, so can I go?"
"Yes Doctor McKay, you can go."
"You know I thought you and Carter were an item."
John was just coming out of the bathroom when he heard what Rodney said and stopped dead.
"What the hell?"
"I did. Mandatory rest day, you spent the entire day with her so..." Rodney shrugged.
John scraped his jaw off the floor for the second time in an hour and dropped on to the sofa beside his new lover - soon to be lover. They hadn't quite made it that far yet.
"I know, I know, it was silly of me wasn't it?"
John nodded. "Yeah, definitely, very definitely, very silly."
"I mean... Okay so we played golf and I had lunch with her but only because you were with Katie and..."
Rodney got the stunned bunny look again.
"Oh my god! You were jealous."
"Nah..." John couldn't look Rodney in the eye.
"You were! You so were! But if you were..." Rodney's eyes went even wider. "How long?"
"How long what?"
"Don't give me that, Sheppard. You know what. How long had you been into me?"
John actually blushed.
"I hadn't, I wasn't 'into' you. Well not that I knew anyway."
"So this," Rodney said, gesturing between them. "This thing between us was all some sudden realisation three hours ago hmm?"
"Yeah, I guess, kinda." John was still having difficulty looking directly at Rodney and mumbled the last at the arm of the sofa.
"I don't think I believe you. I think you've been harbouring secret feelings for me all along. I knew there was something odd about the way you behaved around Katie..."
"Rawdneeeey!" This was a conversation John didn't want to have. He didn't give Rodney chance to start talking again. Instead he leaned over, wrapped a hand around the back of Rodney's neck and kissed him, long and slow and deep and as dirtily as he knew how. As a method of silencing McKay it was the best he'd found by a long way. As a method of getting himself so hard it was painful John had never found anything faster. He devoured Rodney, driving his tongue forcefully into Rodney's mouth, making his feelings absolutely clear. It didn't matter how long John had wanted this, he wanted it now and he was determined that Rodney was going to know just how much John wanted him.
"Ohhh..." It was all Rodney could manage when John finally let him up for air. A quick glance at the scientist's lap assured John the uncomfortably tight pants situation was mutual.
"Wanna move this to the bed?"
Okay so not only had he gotten Rodney impressively hard, he'd reduced him to one-word answers too. That had to be a good sign.
Painful erections or not, kissing Rodney was good, so John continued all the way over to the bed. By the time they were both lying down he had his hands under Rodney's shirt, touching naked Rodney skin and suddenly clothes were nothing but a barrier to all that potential naked Rodney he still had to explore.
"Maybe we should have gotten rid of the clothes before lying down."
"Well that's soon solved." Rodney reached for the hem of John's t-shirt and tugged it upwards. John was a little slow to catch on.
"Get with the program here, Sheppard; I want you naked, now!"
"If we're going to get naked together can you please manage to call me John at least most of the time?"
Rodney finally got John's shirt off and just sat staring at John's chest.
"Oh god... yes... erm... John."
"Better. Now lift your arms up."
Rodney obeyed, sweeping his fingertips up John's chest on the way making the soldier gasp and shiver.
Confronted with a bare-chested Rodney only inches away John gave in to temptation and allowed himself something he'd wanted to do for a long, long time. He leaned forward and very delicately licked one of Rodney's nipples.
Rodney's breath caught, so John grinned and did it again. Then he moved across to the other nipple licking first then giving in and suckling gently, teasing and tonguing till Rodney was breathing nothing but breathy little moans and fisting his hands tight in the bed covers.
John kept his mouth and tongue working and let his hands wander over every part of Rodney he could reach. Long gun calloused fingers mapped the planes and contours of Rodney's back and shoulders, down his sides, across his ribs and back up to begin all over again. John wanted every inch and he wasn't alone in his desire to explore. Rodney had gotten hold of himself enough to return the compliment and those big hands with their blunt fingers were carefully exploring every inch of John.
John kissed and nibbled his way back to Rodney's mouth, then kissed and nibbled his way inside. Some part of his brain kept asking why he'd waited so long to do this but John told it to shut up, it had a point but now wasn't the time. His hands brushed over the waistband of Rodney's BDUs again and John decided he couldn't wait any longer.
He pulled back far enough to look at Rodney's face.
"Can I?" His fingers twitched around the button on Rodney's pants.
Rodney nodded and John felt the tiny rocking motion as Rodney responded to the idea of being free of the confining clothes.
John didn't waste any time, with a little help from the physicist he stripped himself first and then got Rodney out of his pants and boxers. He spent a moment just drinking in the sight of a wonderfully naked and aroused Rodney.
He knew Rodney would be beautiful, he'd been secretly admiring the man for three years, but the reality before him was better than any stolen glances or late night fantasies. Rodney wasn't perfect, but it was the little imperfections that made him perfect to John.
One of those minor imperfections was calling loudly to John now. He pulled Rodney into another kiss and let one hand drift lower and lower until his fingers were tracing little patterns over the gentle swell of Rodney's belly. John had wanted to touch Rodney there for as long as he could remember and Rodney didn't disappoint. As soon as John's fingers began to stroke Rodney's breath hitched. The more John stroked the more Rodney's breathing stuttered and when John gave in completely and splayed his hand low over as much of Rodney's belly as he could touch the effect was astonishing. Rodney moaned and if John hadn't had his arms round him he was sure Rodney would have collapsed in a boneless heap.
Rodney's eyes were huge pools of hazy blue and his lips were parted and moist as he panted and gasped every time John so much as flexed his fingers.
"Jeezus, Rodney!" John had often wondered just how responsive his friend might be but this was way beyond his wildest imaginings.
He pushed Rodney gently back so he was lying flat on the bed and felt him arch, pressing up into John's hand wanting more and more, still moaning softly.
"What the hell're you apologising for, Rodney? It's... you're..." John was lost for words and had to take a deep breath to get a hold of himself.
"That, touching me there, s'always been a bit of a trigger for me." Rodney was still panting. He reached down quickly and tugged at his balls.
John swallowed. His brain was running away with itself at the idea of what this might mean.
"Rodney can you?" John didn't need to finish the sentence, Rodney was nodding in response as soon as he spoke.
"Just from this?" He flexed his fingers again and got another nod.
"Oh..." There was a lot about Rodney John was going to have to learn and fast.
"Have I... do you need to come now?"
Rodney managed to both nod and shake at the same time. "Yes, but I can wait, until you tell..."
The reality of what Rodney was actually saying hit John like a stone. What he was seeing was pure, natural Rodney. Rodney as he really was and the very idea of what he was offering, the enormity of the gift...
Another nod, "Definitely."
John was so hard it was painful. He'd wanted to love Rodney since before they'd gone to the infirmary but this revelation, the sudden knowledge of all he could have if he chose to take it was making his cock throb and jump with desire and his hands tremble with need.
Rodney reached out and ran delicate fingers up the length of John's shaft, teasing gently over the head, gathering the droplets of pre-come that were collected there. John groaned softly as Rodney brought his fingers up to his lips and began to lick them clean, tasting John, his face telling John exactly what he thought and felt.
"Rodney, how..." John didn't get any further because Rodney leaned across and took a large bottle of lube from the drawer in the nightstand.
"Fuck me? Please? I want to feel you inside me for the first time, after that..."
John didn't need asking twice. The idea of burying himself deep inside Rodney almost pushed him over there and then.
"Anything you want, Rodney. You only gotta ask." John meant it too. He'd give Rodney any and every thing he wanted for the privilege of seeing and touching and getting responses like this.
John leaned down and kissed the head of Rodney's cock, feather light kisses that caused the man to moan softly.
It was nearly too much for both of them so John sat up and quickly slicked his fingers. He wanted to do so much, the possibilities were endless and overwhelming but he needed to focus on now, on satisfying both of them.
Rodney bent his knees and let them drop far apart, offering himself to John.
"Oh god..." John groaned as he reached down and slowly pushed first one then two fingers inside Rodney.
Rodney began rocking back on to John's fingers almost as soon as his entrance was breached. Want, desire, need, almost desperation were playing across his features. Rodney's cock was leaking constantly; one hand fisted in the bed sheets while the other locked round John's bicep in an almost bruising grip.
John deliberately didn't touch Rodney's prostate, he wasn't sure either of them could have stood the reaction.
When he was sure Rodney was good and ready John reached up for a pillow and slid it under Rodney's hips. Covering his throbbing cock in lube made him moan before he moved between Rodney's legs and carefully lined himself up.
Rodney's eyes were wide and the bluest John had ever seen. John never stopped looking into them as he slowly thrust into Rodney's body for the first time.
It was hot and slick and tight and smooth like silk and velvet. Like coming home to the place where John had always wanted to be, where he belonged.
He managed to hold still for a few long seconds before desire and need pushed him into moving, slowly at first, deep long glides that made Rodney moan and gasp and grab hold of John with both hands.
John adjusted his angle slightly and Rodney arched off the bed, tightening his grip on John and mewling with pleasure.
"Oh fuck, John, please!"
John deepened his strokes and began to speed up, hammering Rodney's prostate every time, desperation began to take over and soon they were both gasping and panting, moving faster and faster. Sliding against each other, over each other, bodies glistening, slick with sweat.
"Rodney do you need?" Once again John didn't get chance to finish the question when Rodney instantly shook his head, "Just tell me okay?"
John swallowed and nodded and thrust harder and deeper into Rodney. Their breath mingled as John watched waiting for the moment.
A flicker, a slight dilation, "Come for me, Rodney."
Heat intensified and John felt Rodney tighten around him as he came long and hot, covering both of them in bright silvery ribbons. Rodney was silent when he came and it was the silence as much as the vice that clamped around his cock that pushed John over the edge. He filled Rodney, releasing his essence deep inside, stilling his thrusts until he was completely spent.
Rodney pulled John down on top of him and wrapped his arms and legs around him. John held on tight as they both panted their way through the aftermath of intense orgasm.
John had no idea what he'd expected, his dreams and fantasies had always been magical, but there had never been anything this passionate.
When his brain came back to his body he rolled them so they lay on their sides facing each other and took a good long look at Rodney.
It was a while before Rodney opened his eyes. He gave John a half smile and kind of shrugged.
"Not what you expected eh?"
"No, yeah, Jesus, Rodney, I have no idea. I didn't expect anything, well I didn't think I did."
"But you still got a surprise."
John tightened his grip, Rodney looked worried now, worried and lost.
"A really good surprise, the best."
"You sure, 'cause I can... I don't have to be like that it's just that you hit the trigger right off and that took me by surprise and I thought maybe you'd seen something and..." Rodney was looking at John all big eyes and vulnerable.
"Shh, Rodney. S'okay. I can't say you didn't shock me a little because, well, you did and we maybe should talk about it, or maybe not. We seemed to manage okay just now. Didn't we?"
Rodney nodded firmly and smiled a little wider.
"So you're okay with it then, with me being a bit..." Rodney wasn't sure if he should go on so he stopped.
"Very okay, Rodney. I want you to be you. The real you. I want to see who you really are, what you are." John looked intently at his new lover. "You're probably going to have to tell me what you need, how to make sure I give you what you want. I mean I've fucked guys before but never had anyone quite as... responsive as you were, are."
"Submissive, John. The word is submissive and like I said I don't have to be that way it's just... I just... prefer it sometimes."
John stroked a gentle finger down the side of Rodney's face. "Hey, like I said, anything, Rodney, anything at all."
The repeated reassurance seemed to be enough. Rodney nodded, "It usually takes people by surprise."
"Yeah, I can imagine, but we can do whatever you want, Rodney."
John wondered if he'd kind of sensed something of this right from the start. His need to protect Rodney had always been so strong. Sometimes it added to the awkwardness of the friendship. Rodney wasn't a fragile flower, recent events and past ones had proven that over and over but there had always been something, a strange vulnerability that had John coming out of his corner all cave man like. He'd had to be careful so many times.
"Wanna get cleaned up then we can get settled?"
Rodney nodded, "Please."
John kissed him again before they both went to the bathroom to wash up.
It was surprisingly easy to settle down in Rodney's bed together. Rodney curled himself into John and they fitted together naturally, easily finding a position that was comfortable for both of them.
"Hey did you want any supper?" John suddenly remembered they hadn't been to the mess since dinner with Teyla and Ronon.
"I probably did, but now I don't want to move so, no, not anymore."
John chuckled. As usual there was probably at lot to be said but John wasn't sure where to begin. There had been so many revelations today that he wasn't sure if they should even talk about anything.
"Will you stay all night?" Rodney asked suddenly in a small voice.
John had the sense to think before he answered. Rodney would accept whatever he decided, but there was a huge potential for hurt in even the smallest thing between them now and John had no desire to hurt Rodney if he could help it.
"Yes." He said softly but firmly. "We'll have to be careful, but right now I want to stay if that's okay with you?"
Rodney nodded against John's shoulder and John felt the physicist's body relax a little more in his arms.
"Thanks. I won't expect it every night, so you needn't worry about that."
"Hey, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I've heard things since Carter's been here so it may not be as much of a problem as we think."
He felt rather than saw Rodney's grin.
"You mean about General O'Neill and Doctor Jackson?"
John nodded. "Yeah and some others."
"I think there's something going on there with Sam too."
"Really?" John's eyebrows went up even though Rodney couldn't see them.
"Not sure, but there are some rumours flying around from some of the new scientists about O'Neill and Sam and Daniel and how the General was with Sam and now he's with Daniel and that's why Sam's here and some weird story about me being involved somewhere, which is totally stupid as I haven't seen Sam for months, and never seen her like that!"
"Rodney! You were infatuated with her for years."
"Oh I know that."
John could feel Rodney rolling his eyes in the darkness.
"I mean, she didn't see me that way, ever, and in the end I think it was more of a kind of in joke between us. She expected it so I did it kind of thing, well maybe more the other way round. I did it so she expected it."
John chuckled and kissed Rodney's hair. He thought he understood but understanding wasn't the point, the point was that it was good to hear Rodney babble on non-stop like this. It made John feel at home, safe, secure. A babbling Rodney was a happy, okay Rodney.
"I thought once or twice you'd gone right off Carter recently." John was testing the water a little, he didn't mind if Rodney answered or not.
"Personally, I like Sam, I always have and I always will, but I miss Elizabeth so much and I don't like what Sam represents, its cost me too many good scientists. This was always supposed to be an international civilian expedition." There was a pause while they both contemplated what Rodney had just said then Rodney stiffened in John's arms as if the contemplation had raised something unpleasant.
"What is it? Rodney, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," Rodney sighed, "Just, Elizabeth."
"Rodney you do know I don't blame you. You know that don't you."
"Well, I think I did, do. I do now anyway. You're actually very difficult for me to read and all I could get off you about Elizabeth was anger."
John swallowed and tightened his hold on Rodney, almost pulling the scientist on top of him in an attempt to get him as close as possible.
"I'm sorry. I was angry at first because, well, for a lot of reasons and then it got worse when you didn't behave like I expected."
"How do you mean?"
"You didn't try and prove it wasn't your fault. Usually you would have. You'd have been hunting me down, tablet in hand with endless theories and proofs complete with diagrams and equations and this time you didn't."
There was a long pause before Rodney answered softly.
"Sometimes it isn't about being right or wrong or about grinding people into the dirt to prove intellectual superiority and anyway that's a given with me. Sometimes it's about what you believe about someone. Whether you believe they could have done a thing either deliberately or carelessly or not. It wasn't a test, I was too devastated to think like that at the time." Rodney said softly. "But I couldn't come running after you, it, Elizabeth was too important. She wasn't an intellectual theory, she's a friend. That's why I was so annoyed with Sam, for reducing my friend to a math proof. Okay gross oversimplification there, but you know what I mean and anyway there was no way to prove anything."
Rodney had come a long way since they'd arrived in the Pegasus Galaxy.
"I know and that's what got to me. At first, I think it made me angrier because I thought you were doing it to make me look bad." John shook his head at himself.
Rodney frowned. "I don't understand. How did my accepting reality and needing you to decide for yourself make you look bad?"
John snorted softly, "Because, it kinda highlighted that maybe the problem was me, not you. I knew what Carter had said and I know you well enough that you'd never hurt anyone deliberately."
"Except a Wraith," Rodney jumped in.
John nodded. "True, except a Wraith."
"Or a Replicator."
John smiled and kissed Rodney again, making Rodney smile too.
"You didn't do what I expected and it threw me. I'd gotten used to you always doing one thing and you didn't do it. I had it pointed out to me by a few people that maybe I was being a jerk but..." John shrugged.
"S'okay. If I'd been able to prove it maybe I would have been chasing after you, but its okay now isn't it?"
"Oh God, Rodney, it's a whole lot more than okay." John nuzzled Rodney's hair, then kissed his way down the side of his face, revelling in the change from soft skin to rough stubble. When he reached Rodney's lips he captured them with his own and kissed him long and loving, trying to convey just how okay everything was.
Hanging out in John's room had always been fun. It reminded him of his university days, sitting for hours in someone's room discussing the most bizarre things long into the night.
Hanging out in John's room now though, being the way they were, doing what they were doing was way better than any memories. Rodney liked the times when he got out of the lab before John got off shift and he could just let himself in and do anything he wanted while he waited for John to come home. There was something comforting about just being around John's things, knowing he didn't have to wait long before John would come in through the door and just... be there.
Tonight Rodney was sprawled on John's funny Ancient couch surrounded by medical journals, with a just-opened snickers bar in one hand.
"Watcha doin'?" How did he do that? John always managed to sneak in without Rodney noticing. John compounded his stealth attack by leaning down and taking a bite of Rodney's candy.
Rodney swatted him away. "Hey! Get your own Snickers bar, this one's mine." He pulled the chocolate protectively close to his chest and glared at John.
John pouted, and Rodney melted faster than any chocolate. It was truly disgusting the way the man could reduce him to mush just by looking sad in that totally false and juvenile way he had, but it worked every time. Rodney grudgingly held the rest of the chocolate out to John who grinned in triumph and took another bite before handing it back.
"No seriously, why are you reading medical journals?"
"Some of that stuff Kate gave me."
"Ah." John nodded. "Any good?"
Rodney sighed and paused which had John a little concerned. Rodney was not a pausing person.
"Yes." Well that wasn't a pause it was a period. Definitely.
"O... kay... care to elaborate? And in case you've forgotten you're the 'highly evolved telepath' in this relationship, Rodney, I'm just the ordinary Joe."
"Ordinary my ass."
"Well I think your ass is quite extraordinary." John waggled his eyebrows and leered in the direction of Rodney's crotch. It was the best he could do seeing as the inconsiderate man was actually using his extraordinary ass for one of the purposes nature intended: sitting on it. "Anyway your ass isn't what we're discussing right now, so..." John gestured at the journals and Rodney to get on and actually answer his question already.
"I've been reading about some of the things people like me can do."
John stole another bite of Snickers and nodded as he chewed and Rodney went on.
"And thinking, well, wondering more like."
"Okay, what about?"
John frowned, puzzled.
"Not getting the connection here, Rodney, what about Elizabeth and your new ability?"
"According to at least four recent articles that I've read now, one of the things it's thought people like me may be able to do is help people to recover from long-term comas."
John's eyebrows shot up. Well this was new. Helping Rodney cope with his newly-expanded brain and everything that came with it made John's already-interesting life just a little more varied. However, the idea that Rodney might actually want to use his new talent deliberately, not just when circumstances forced the abilities to activate at a level that couldn't be ignored, was a completely new departure. Rodney had been putting a lot of effort into learning how to filter out other people's emotions most of the time. He was getting quite good at it too and John needed to pay attention to what Rodney was saying now before the guy realised he wasn't concentrating properly.
"No one has actually done it completely yet, and a lot of it is theoretical, but in surveys a number of people who've recovered talk about being led back to reality by someone, a person, sometimes it's a dead close relative or friend, but sometimes it's someone they don't recognise and have never met. In over 80% of cases the timing, as close as they can measure it, correlates with a period when some crackpot in the family tried an empath or faith healer out of desperation. Interesting, don't you think?"
Rodney's attitude to the whole thing often swung from oddly amusing to downright frightening. He vacillated between total scepticism, condemning everything including himself as ridiculous and stupid and why was he wasting his time on this nonsense and complete and utter belief. At times it could be comical, but John had been there when watching Rodney try to cope had been anything but funny.
Rodney was right, the information was interesting and John thought he knew where Rodney was headed now. One of Rodney's biggest frustrations was that he had difficulty seeing any point to what he could 'do' most of the time. Being able to feel other people's emotions was more of a hindrance than a help as far as Rodney was concerned most of the time and John could sympathise.
"Rodney, are you saying that you think you could bring Elizabeth back?"
"No!" Rodney almost shouted the response. "Well... yes... maybe... how the hell should I know I've only been doing this a few weeks, but yes... maybe, surely it's gotta be worth looking into at least?" Rodney's voice had risen and he was starting to get agitated.
"Hey, I'm not saying it isn't, Rodney." John dropped a hand onto Rodney's shoulder and squeezed gently.
"Sorry." Rodney sighed long and loud. "I just..."
"Look, if this stuff really is sound, and we can ask Kate her opinion and Doctor Keller too, but, I guess if she didn't think it was worth a look Kate wouldn't have given you the stuff to read, then it's worth looking into, but first of all I gotta ask, do the articles mention any risks?"
"Ah..." Rodney didn't need to say anymore.
"Knew there had to be a catch." John settled on the couch beside Rodney and picked up one of the open journals. "So what is it, the catch?"
"Apparently it's theoretically possible for the empath person to get lost in the mind of the person they are trying to help."
"Well that's not good."
"No, it isn't. There's apparently a kind of automatic mental braking mechanism that prevents the mind from risking itself beyond a certain point, which is why people stop trying after what seems like a very short time. It's very draining and tiring and the reports state that the ability to fight for mental integrity diminishes the more time an empath spends trying to help. It's all to do with everyone having feelings, even people in comas, and empaths being able to use the feelings as a guide or something. Right now the technique seems utterly bizarre and total gobbledegook to me, but people who've been there, medical type people, when someone has tried to do this say the risks are very real."
Rodney sighed and tossed the journal aside. "And it's all probably a load of crap anyway."
John was no empath, but he could tell when Rodney's shutters had gone up and once they had there was no point in pushing the discussion. The idea was there, and it would bobble around in Rodney's brain until he either decided to try something or dismissed it completely.
The main lab was quietly buzzing.
All the benches were occupied with industrious physicists and engineers and covered in strange looking bits and pieces of Ancient or Asgard technology in various states of dissection or dismemberment.
"Don't ask what I'm doing please." Rodney held up a hand as John approached his bench. This was the third time John had visited the labs to bug Rodney already this morning. The colonel was bored, which meant Rodney became the entertainment.
John contrived to look a little hurt, making Rodney sigh and growl softly under his breath. John knew full well the effect that kicked puppy look had on him and he so was not playing fair today.
"Will you stop that?" Rodney hissed sharply, hoping nobody else could hear.
"What?" John shrugged and succeeded in looking almost innocent.
"Oh don't even pretend you don't know exactly what I mean."
"I don't..." John waited a heartbeat before grinning. "Actually I came-" He never got any further because just at that second there was a fizzing sound then a small localised explosion followed by a long loud scream. The screaming didn't stop, it kept on and on and on.
Rodney was off his stool in an instant, snapping orders at the rest of the lab, rushing to see what the damage was.
Whatever Doctor Mary Watson had been working on was now little more than shards and ash. The ash was floating gently down, covering every nearby surface in fine grey flakes.
The screaming was coming from the good doctor herself, hunched over clutching a badly burned and lacerated hand.
Panicked and in pain the woman reached for a cloth to wrap around the hand.
"No!" Rodney grabbed the injured arm just below the elbow holding it away from contact with anything.
Realising what Rodney was doing and why John grabbed the doctor's other arm to stop her harming either herself or Rodney.
"It hurts!" It came out as a strangled scream.
A med team'll be here soon." John's voice was calm but he hoped the medics got here fast. He looked frantically across at Rodney, about to yell at someone to call the infirmary again but what the...
Rodney's face was twisted and his eyes were screwed tightly shut.
At first it was so slow John wasn't sure it was really happening, but it didn't take much longer for him to be certain.
Doctor Watson stopped screaming.
"Oh my god!" John had no idea who said it but the sentiment was echoed in whispers all around the lab.
As everyone watched, open-mouthed, the blood slowed and stopped dripping, the cuts began to close and fresh new pink skin became visible where there had been burns only minutes before.
It wasn't like what Rodney had done before with Zelenka. Well it was, only this was much slower, very much slower and looked as if it was almost killing Rodney.
"Rodney your hand!" Zelenka pointed at the hand holding Doctor Watson's arm.
The skin was scorched red and shiny, and there were scars in all the same places as the healing cuts on Doctor Watson's hand.
"Rodney!" It was a half-shout and John was already reaching out. "Rodney!"
"I've got her, Colonel." The newly arrived Doctor Keller nodded at Rodney. "See to Doctor McKay."
John moved round the stricken scientist and grabbed Rodney's arm firmly.
"Rodney, come on buddy, let go now, you've done enough, she's gonna be okay now, come on let go."
Slowly, Rodney opened his eyes. He blinked a few times, then hissed in pain.
"Oh." Finally Rodney let go of Doctor Watson. The injured woman was staring at her boss with a mixture of pain, disbelief, fear and awe on her face.
She wasn't the only one. Everyone was staring. Everyone's face wore a similar expression.
Rodney moaned softly, cradling his damaged hand, and John looked meaningfully at Zelenka.
"Come on, people, if you aren't part of the cleanup here lets get back to work shall we?"
He began shooing gawking scientists away from the scene and back to their own benches.
Whatever strength it was that made Rodney able to do this gave out suddenly and he sagged, making John grab for him with both hands to stop him sinking to the floor.
"Woah there, steady. I got ya."
Someone pushed a lab stool at John and he guided Rodney down on to it.
Doctor Keller finished getting Doctor Watson onto a gurney and ordered her taken to the infirmary, but didn't leave with the other medics.
"You okay, Rodney?" John wanted to pull Rodney into his arms but had to settle for keeping a hand on Rodney's shoulder once he was seated.
Rodney bit his lip and looked down at his own hand. It wasn't bleeding the way Doctor Watson's had been but the skin was red and angry, with raised welts where the injured scientist's had been cut.
"Infirmary?" Keller made it a question not an order, for which John was grateful, if Rodney wanted to go to the infirmary they'd be half way there by now.
Rodney shook his head.
"Then I think some privacy might help... you both, Colonel." Doctor Keller's voice was soft. "Maybe Doctor McKay's quarters?"
John was suddenly very glad they'd slept in his quarters last night. The last thing he needed right now was to be worrying about any incriminating evidence left lying around accidentally.
"Come on, Rodney, let's get you out of here."
Rodney nodded without speaking and dragged himself off the stool. It took every ounce of energy he had to trudge to the transporter and stay upright until they got to his quarters.
"There you go." John opened the door and Rodney just stumbled in and fell on the bed.
"Do you want anything for the pain, Doctor McKay?"
John was already nodding, but strangely Rodney wasn't.
He looked at his hand, which definitely appeared to be less red, less scorched, with fewer welts.
"It doesn't hurt as much already so, perhaps not, its gone kinda numb."
Keller nodded, "Alright, maybe its best to wait and see. The mirror injuries you manifest don't seem as bad as the original ones, so long as you're not in agony I'm going to go get the portable scanner. It won't give us as much detail but it might tell us something."
John nodded as Doctor Keller left. She'd read the situation very well realising that Rodney wanted privacy more than a medical explanation for what he'd just done. He'd sort of been here before only not quite, and it had all been easy then.
John sat on the edge of the bed and rested a hand on Rodney's belly, splaying his fingers as wide as he could, knowing the effect it had and how much Rodney loved it. It was the quickest distraction he could think of.
John chuckled. He wanted to slip his hand under Rodney's shirt and rest his fingers against bare skin, but Keller was on her way back and he didn't want to take unnecessary risks.
"Well that was different."
"Wanna tell me what happened?"
"You were there. You saw, so what's to tell?"
John felt Rodney's stomach muscles tense under his hand. He started to rub slow soothing circles in response.
"Thought you might wanna give me the insider version."
"It's all a bit of a blur."
The door chimed. John removed his hand and stood as Doctor Keller and her portable scanner walked in.
He helped the doctor position the scanner, but he didn't want Rodney to stop talking so he shot Keller a look that plainly said keep quiet. Keller nodded and stayed silent.
"Go on, Rodney."
"It was like I had no choice again. She was hurt; I knew I could help so I had to. The second I touched her I had to do something."
"Could you have not done it, stopped it somehow?"
"Touching her it would have been hard, but I think so, not touching her would have been the best way to avoid it. Seems it needs physical contact."
John looked at Keller who was nodding as she got the scanner working and its low hum filled the silence.
"And now you're exhausted?" The question was from Keller.
"Too right I am. Dunno how I stood up long enough to get back here, but... thanks for not making a fuss and taking me to the infirmary."
The doctor smiled.
"Didn't think you'd want that."
Rodney nodded "I needed to be away from people. It... it gets too overwhelming and despite all the practise I've done, when it gets to that level I can't filter it out. It's kind of an all or nothing thing."
"Dealing with everyone else's reaction as well as your own, yeah I guess it would. S'kind of a double whammy."
Rodney nodded. He was lying with one arm up and bent, half covering his eyes, his 'injured' hand had been half-hidden, down by his side until he lifted it to rest across his middle.
"Now that is weird. Cool, but weird." John's eyebrows were dancing between his 'hey that's cool' look and his 'that's weird' look.
It made Rodney chuckle before he inspected the hand more closely.
His hand was almost healed.
"I know it hurt, but how does it do that?" John had to ask.
"Of course it hurt." Rodney's face added the unspoken, you moron, before he went on. "Hurt like a bitch at the time, but then the pain gradually faded, maybe in favour of the exhaustion, I'm not sure and I don't know how it does it. How I do it. If I knew how it all worked then we wouldn't be going through all this would we?"
John dropped a hand to Rodney's arm and squeezed gently.
The scientist sighed and closed his eyes for a minute, in an effort to calm down.
"And that's interesting too." Keller provided the much needed distraction as she showed the results of the scan on the little portable screen.
She turned the scanner round.
Rodney's eyes widened.
"It's no different to last week."
"Exactly. However you're doing this, Rodney, you're doing it with the already activated parts of your brain. There's no more expansion."
"You expected there to be some, Doc?" John was more capable of asking the questions than Rodney right now.
"Well after that demonstration it seemed likely that either, over the last week, Doctor McKay's brain expansion had put on a spurt, or, I had another theory, that the usage expansion increased during episodes like this, or like when the shelf fell down, and then decreased once the need for the extra 'brainpower' was gone. Medically I didn't think that was possible, but this is the Pegasus galaxy and before I came here I thought a lot of things weren't possible, that I've since seen happen so..."
"You and me both, Doctor." Of all of them Rodney was probably the one who understood that sentiment the best.
Keller grinned. "However, this proves me wrong again. You, Doctor McKay, are a unique medical phenomenon." The woman started packing up the scanner.
Rodney just looked smug.
"Did you have to tell him that, Doc?"
"Sorry, Colonel but he'd've worked it out for himself sooner or later. He is a genius after all."
John just groaned and shook his head.
"Now how do you feel, Doctor McKay?"
"Just tired now I think. Not totally exhausted but definitely tired and the hand doesn't hurt anymore, but it's tingling rather badly."
"That's normal for a healing burn. I suggest you take it easy for the rest of the day. Maybe Colonel Sheppard here could keep you company and make sure you stay out of trouble."
Rodney scowled, "I don't get into trouble, that's him." He pointed at Sheppard.
"I'll stick with him, Doc. Keep him out of trouble."
"I just said..." Rodney's voice had gone up an octave, but he didn't get chance to finish because the door chimed.
Doctor Keller left as Teyla and Ronon entered.
"Honey I'm home." Only John would actually use that phrase when he arrived back off-shift.
"Oh for god's sake. I'm out here."
"Hey." John wandered over to Rodney's lounger.
"Hey yourself." Rodney looked up, squinting against the late afternoon sun.
"You really should remember sunglasses, Rodney."
"I can't see the screen properly if I wear them."
John sighed and sat on the opposite lounger.
"So how was the infirmary?"
"Full of sick people."
"Surprising isn't it?"
"And, so, how did it go, the healing thing."
Rodney snorted softly and half-smiled up at John.
"The 'healing thing' as you so inelegantly put it went okay, just like it did the last time and the time before that and every other damn day I've tried."
"But..." John's worrying about Rodney metre had been running at around three for the last week and he'd learned not to ignore it.
Rodney set the laptop aside and leaned back, sighing, his fingers restlessly picking at the hem of his shirt.
"Why? How? I mean, I go in when Keller calls. I do my 'healing thing,' stagger back to my quarters feeling like death, sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up still tired but with any physical effects to me already healed. By the following day I've about recovered so I go to the labs and the next time Keller calls I do it all over again."
John opened his mouth but before he could speak Rodney raised his hand and went on.
"And before you make the obligatory comment about helping and healing and being grateful for my most wonderful gift, I know all that and yes I am grateful most of the time but for god's sake John what real use is it? One minor injury a day! I mean it's not exactly gonna be a lot of use in a crisis is it?"
"Listen, I know, okay. I know all the theories, all the ideas." He reached out and knocked a stack of printout and journals from the lounger towards John. They scattered haphazardly all over the floor. "I've read all the information Kate and Jennifer already had and all the latest material Earth sent on the last supply run. If there's any more research to read it's so recent it's not even published yet.
Jennifer was right when she said I was a unique medical phenomenon, sadly. Even Teyla's run out of ideas to make the thing any easier and therefore any real use."
Rodney's face was pink and John could see moisture forming in the corner of his eyes. It was all frustration, pure and simple. Rodney wasn't the most patient of people and all the medics could say was that it might get easier and he may be more efficient with time and practise, but until then even if nothing changed, they were all glad he was doing what he was.
There were people in the city who were incredibly grateful to Rodney, people who had been saved days of painful recovery time, but Rodney being Rodney saw more limitations to his ability than benefits.
The talent only really worked well on certain kinds of injuries, because there was a natural in-built 'braking system' that stopped him pushing himself past the point at which he would do serious damage to himself. He could help with post-surgical healing, which meant marines and scientists alike were able to get back on their feet faster and with less trauma than a normal recovery would take. Rodney was able to heal muscle tissue back to its previous best, saving some marines hours with the physio instructors. To those he helped, Rodney was a hero, and those he couldn't help never objected because his work meant the infirmary doctors could give them undivided care and attention if necessary.
Doctor Keller had joked that she hoped he didn't become too proficient as she had no desire to be replaced by a man whose doctorates were in physics not medicine.
Rodney's response to that was the first Carson voodoo joke he'd made since his friend's death.
John reached out and stroked a hand across Rodney's knee.
Sometimes he was just grateful for the small stuff.
The planet was probably one of the most beautiful they had ever visited. It seemed to be endless picture-book scenery of rolling hills, scattered lakes and woodlands, and spectacular mountains.
They'd flown around much of it in the jumper and then landed with a view to exploring on foot and getting some samples for the various interested scientific parties back in the city.
This was the third such stop and the jumper now held neatly labelled sample containers from the other two.
"Soil, water, prominent flora and fauna, all the usual suspects."
Ronon nodded at Rodney and headed off towards the river with some water sampling bottles.
"Strange." Rodney was standing by a tree, head cocked on one side as though he was listening for something.
"What is?" John ignored Teyla's grin. Okay so he had been standing admiring the way the sun dappled Rodney's back and hair, so shoot him already, Rodney looked good in John's black t-shirt that was just a shade tight across Rodney's broad shoulders.
"The total lack of any developed life. There aren't even any ruins."
John shrugged. "There may be some in some of the places we didn't fly over or..."
"The people here may have lived underground in order to avoid the Wraith." Teyla finished John's sentence for him.
"True, there's nothing on the sensors indicating that, but it could be shielded of course, or too deep underground." It was Rodney's turn to shrug. He shook his head a little and bent to gather some grass from the forest floor.
When Ronon got back from the river, shaking glistening drops of water from his dreads, and looking like a swim might have been a close run thing, John ordered them to pack up. It was time to head back to the jumper and return to Atlantis.
"It's like some of the finest scenery on Earth all gathered together in one place." Rodney looked around smiling appreciatively.
John began to wish the two of them were here alone.
"All in one place?" Teyla queried.
"Earth's climate means that the spread of different types of landscapes is much further apart than on this planet. The rolling green hills that we would call countryside cannot exist alongside this kind of dense jungle on Earth because the vegetation needs two very different climates to exist, one mild and temperate the other very hot and humid."
Teyla nodded. "So you think either the vegetation or the climate here is strange in some way?"
"Well it's more likely just different in that the tropical jungle-type plants obviously require only a temperate climate to grow which I find unusual, but of course for here it's normal."
"Shhh," Ronon hissed at them and stopped dead.
John and Teyla both lifted their P90s as Rodney reached for the LSD.
"What is it?" John whispered stepping close to the Satedan.
Rodney looked at the LSD and shook his head but Ronon answered.
"Something in the trees, s'big."
"Okay, keep together, stay sharp everyone."
They carried on walking, constantly looking around trying to see whatever it was Ronon had sensed.
"Ohhhh crap!" Rodney gulped, suddenly gasping for air.
The scientist stopped and leaned on a tree for support.
"One second." He took a few deep breaths then stood straight. "Sorry, that was intense."
"You sensing something?"
"Anger, hatred, fear, loathing. This is not good; in fact, this is really bad, really, really bad."
"Close, too close."
"Colonel we can see the place where we parked the puddle jumper. It is not far, perhaps we should..."
"Agreed, Teyla. You okay to move, Rodney?"
"Oh yes, definitely."
They set off again.
The jumper was parked in a meadow on the edge of the forest only a few yards from the tree-line.
Rodney was breathless and turning a little greener the closer they got to the jumper, but it wasn't until they were almost out of the forest that they caught sight of the cause of Rodney's discomfort.
Big was an understatement.
The creature was huge. It shimmered into existence, roaring and calling and right between them and the jumper.
"I think we just found your answer, Rodney." John was scanning the area for a possible means of getting to the jumper.
"S'not human." Rodney checked the LSD again. "It's not registering on anything. Just humanoid in shape."
The creature was at least eight feet tall, long limbed with hugely clawed 'hands and feet' covered with shaggy grey fur, with a smallish head that seemed to be nearly all mouth and teeth.
"Looks kinda like a yeti."
"Except yetis don't shimmer like that. If I'm not mistaken, Colonel, that creature can phase, which is going to make it remarkably -"
"Difficult to disable in any way. I know." John finished Rodney's sentence.
They were still hidden in the trees.
John had no idea if the creature knew they were there or not, but it obviously knew the jumper was there even though it was cloaked.
"We need something to throw at it."
"Rodney!" John couldn't quite believe the scientist had just said that. "Now is not the time to antagonise the thing by throwing stuff at it."
"Agreed, but if we could it would tell me whether the phase can be broken long enough for our weapons to have an effect."
Rodney didn't usually suggest attracting the attention of the big scary monsters unless there was a good reason.
"Well it's not like the Sanctuary monster. That was almost permanently phased, transparent, never completely solid."
"Except when we tried to touch it to fight it."
"Exactly. This is probably solid in its natural state here, but with the ability to phase for a period or maybe even permanently when necessary, though I hope not because that would be bad. My guess is that contact with another solid object would prevent it phasing or force it out of phase to it's fully solid and visible state."
"At which point we could shoot it."
"If it solidifies for long enough. That's the idea yes. This is all just a theory though, Colonel."
John dropped a hand onto Rodney's shoulder. "I know."
He looked around for a rock only to find Ronon had beaten him to finding one. Hardly a surprise there.
"Okay we need a plan because if we start throwing rocks at that thing it's gonna come for us with intent. And whatever we decide has to work out in case the contact theory doesn't. We need to get to the jumper."
"Split up." Ronon never elaborated unless pushed.
"That's it?" John had an idea what the big man meant but...
"Four of us, one of it. Split up, throw rocks at it; if it solidifies shoot it, if not run around enough to confuse it so we can all get to the jumper. It can't go in more than one direction at once."
"Point." Rodney was quick to acknowledge.
"Okay, Rodney, can you?" John tossed a rock in one hand looking significantly at Rodney.
"I can try. You, Ronon and Teyla are all going to be faster shots than me so yeah..."
John wasn't just asking Rodney to throw rocks and hope he hit the target; he was asking him to do what he'd done before with the grenades, and use his ability to make sure the rock hit the creature.
"You okay to run?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I am always okay to run when my life depends on it, Sheppard."
John grinned and clapped Rodney on the shoulder. While the others sorted out directions for running Rodney took a few deep breaths and gathered himself a small pile of rocks.
"As soon as you've thrown you need to move, McKay, then head for the jumper."
Rodney nodded and stuffed his pockets full of rocks, not enough to slow him down but enough in case the creature could re-phase out too quickly. Ronon took his pack with a nod before striding off in the direction they'd decided on.
Teyla set of the other way.
"Be careful, Rodney."
"You too." John clapped him on the shoulder before heading out himself.
Seconds later John's voice came over the radio.
"When you're ready, McKay."
Rodney positioned himself just out of sight of the creature in the tree line. It was obviously guarding the puddle jumper: even though the ship was cloaked the creature's ability to phase probably meant it could see the jumper in some way.
Rodney took a deep breath, and as soon as the familiar buzzing feeling started he counted down into his radio then ducked out from behind the tree and threw the rock. It hit the creature square in the chest causing it to solidify for a few seconds. Rodney heard the report of P90 fire and Ronon's blaster, but by the time the weapon's fire hit the creature was shimmering again.
"Crap!" The sentiment was echoed by John.
"We need to be closer and you guys need to start firing even before I throw, maybe the combination of something bigger like the rock and the bullets will bring it out long enough to for the bullets to have an effect."
"Okay we'll try that."
"On the other hand it might just make the creature angry enough to come for us. It won't come into the trees because I suspect it can't phase here because the denseness prevents it, but the jumper is out there in the meadow."
"It's still worth a try, Rodney."
"Okay start shooting when I start my countdown."
As soon as Rodney said three the P90s started up again and when he tossed the rock he scored another direct hit.
"Jeeezus it's a tough sonofabitch."
The creature solidified enough for some of the weapons fire to hit it, but not enough to do more than anger it further."
"Okay so the theory works, we just need something to hang on to it long enough to keep it solid." The idea had to come from Sheppard.
"Rodney I'll circle behind and jump it. I should be able to hang on long enough for Teyla and Ronon to bring it down. What's the worst it can do? Shake me off eventually so I get a bit banged up. Won't be the first time."
"Anyway, Rodney, you can always repair any damage."
"Oh fine. Wonderful. Minor injuries only, Sheppard, remember. That thing could break you in two and I can't repair that."
"I know Rodney, but I won't let it."
Another sigh. Rodney knew there was no point in arguing. Once John was set on a path, God and his entire angelic host would have difficulty preventing him following it.
"I'll circle round. When I call you throw the rock to get its attention then I'll jump it."
Rodney could just see John moving through the trees until he was far enough to be behind the creature when it started to where the rock had come from.
"Ready? Now, McKay."
Rodney threw; the hit wasn't as good, but it was good enough.
The creature roared and started towards Rodney's position in the trees.
He saw John sprint out from the tree line and leap onto the creature's back. It solidified instantly. Teyla's P90 and Ronon's blaster started up instantly, so Rodney followed orders and ran for the jumper, it shimmered into existence at the touch of a button and as the back hatch lowered he turned just in time to see the creature twist round, grasp John in its powerful claws and fling him into the trees.
Blood sprayed as John flew through the air.
Rodney tried to reach out with his new abilities to cushion John's fall, but John wasn't an arrow or a shelf he was a full grown man and there was nothing Rodney could do. He heard the sickening crunch as John's body hit a broad tree and crumpled to the floor.
"McKay shoot!" Ronon's voice came over the radio.
Rodney fumbled for his own P90 and managed to start firing.
The creature was trying to phase again, but was already too damaged. They all kept firing and a moment later it was down.
As soon as the creature began to fall Rodney left dealing with it to Ronon and sprinted to John. He was following a blood trail and what he saw when he got to his lover was sickening.
John was bleeding from the throat and Rodney knew he had next to no time before John bled to death.
He dropped to his knees and got to work.
The pain was excruciating and he realised that by some dreadful, dreadful miracle John was actually conscious.
"Lie still John, let Rodney work." Teyla had appeared from nowhere.
John shook his head making the bleeding worse.
"Oh shut up you idiot, just shut up, shut up, shut up... Teyla try and keep him still and tell him to stop being stupid.
Rodney closed his eyes; it was easier if he couldn't see that this was John.
He heard himself moan from the pain and had to back off a little, but when he opened his eyes John was still bleeding too much so he took a deep breath and got back to it.
It was horrible; he could feel the blood gurgling in his own throat and had to stop a couple of times to spit.
The world slowed down like it always did when he did this and very slowly the healing began.
It took a long time. The creature had all but ripped out John's throat and Rodney had to keep fighting the sudden rushes of fear and panic that he might not be able to do enough, in time.
A heavy but surprisingly gentle hand landed on his shoulder.
"S'working, McKay," Ronon's voice rumbled at his side.
"Rodney, perhaps you can stop now for a while." Teyla's voice was opposite him.
"McKay, come on, stop now, you've done enough!" That was Ronon again.
Okay there was a reason they were starting to sound loud. Why were they both yelling at him?
Rodney opened his eyes.
Sheppard still looked bad, so why? Ah... A sticky feeling when he tried to turn his head. A touch of his fingers to the neck of his own t-shirt and that question was soon answered. He looked down to see the front of his shirt dark with his own blood.
John was still so pale, but closer inspection showed that Rodney had stopped the worst of the bleeding and closed up the vital arteries.
John's eyes fluttered open.
Rodney hiccupped on a ragged breath when he felt John's fingers curl round his in a weak grip.
He held John's hand, trying not to squeeze.
"We need to get John to the jumper." Ronon was checking around them as usual.
Rodney nodded. "I know, but we can't yet."
Teyla looked puzzled. "Why not, you have slowed the bleeding considerably, Rodney, almost stopped it."
"I know but he has three fractured ribs from the impact and if we move him there's a risk..."
John was nodding. He knew how badly he was hurt, had been here too many times before not to recognise the pain.
"Rodney you cannot heal broken, bones. You have tried, but your natural self-preservation prevents you because of the risk to yourself."
"It's not a natural self-preservation thing, Teyla. It's not being able to stand the pain that stops me."
"Same thing isn't it?" Ronon rumbled. "Good thing too."
"No! No it isn't, not always anyway." Rodney's eyes dropped to the ground and his voice became a whisper. "It's because I'm a coward."
That got him three hard glares, even John was glaring at him. Then he looked pleadingly at Teyla and Ronon. John couldn't speak for himself but his friends knew what to say. They would have said it anyway, but they were saying it for John now too.
"You're no coward, McKay."
"Ronon is correct, Rodney. You may be many things, but a coward is not one of them. You are a brave man, Rodney McKay."
Teyla's gaze was nothing but honest. Ronon's steady and determined, and John was nodding despite the pain it cost him.
Rodney took a deep breath. His throat was throbbing and the idea of adding more pain to what he was already feeling didn't appeal to him one bit, but this was John.
"If we try to move him one of those ribs will go straight through a lung and we're too far away from the gate to get home in time. I can't keep him alive and fly the jumper. I have to deal with the worst of the ribs here then we can move him and I can fly us home."
Rodney's voice was shaking and his tone strangely acerbic, but his teammates knew he was impossible to argue with on this.
"Keep John completely still, I need a moment or two to recover."
"How close to check-in time are we?"
"About an hour and a half."
"Okay so when we don't either return or check in, chances are Carter will give it say an hour and then send another team through."
"That's a long time away, Rodney."
"I know, but with the bleeding slowed we have the luxury of a little more time. My biggest concern is if more of those creatures come out to play. We aren't far enough into the trees to be safe." Rodney paused for a long moment. "Okay, if I can get the worst rib dealt with we may be able to move if I can stop the other two from doing any damage. Go get the medical board and kits from the jumper. If more creatures appear we'll just have to risk hauling John into the forest. If they don't I'll get the worst dealt with and then we can move to the jumper and either wait it out or I'll fly us home."
"But I still don't understand how you intend to heal the rib."
Rodney grimaced. "Well here's hoping Keller's percentage mirror theory holds up hmm?" Doctor Keller had surmised that fortunately only a percentage of the injuries Rodney was trying to heal would manifest within him at any time.
"Rodney, do you think this is a good idea?"
"Got any better ones because if you do I'll be only too happy to hear them?"
When neither Teyla nor Ronon responded Rodney shrugged. "There you go then. I'm the best chance we have of being able to move John to a safer place before more shimmering yetis come out to play or..." Rodney tailed off not even wanting to think about the other still very real possibility.
"I'll go get the gear." Ronon jogged away to the jumper.
Rodney felt John's fingers twitch under his. When he looked down John's eyes were open again.
"Hey." John's voice was a whispered gurgling croak.
"Hush you. I got the worst of the bleeding stopped. I'll start on the ribs in a minute. I'm just getting my breath, then we'll get out of here and get you back to a proper doctor."
Teyla scowled and John's fingers tightened again.
"Don't argue. I'm doing this and you aren't in any shape to stop me so don't even try."
John turned his 'please don't let him do this' gaze on Teyla but despite her concern for Rodney Teyla knew that this needed doing and that what Rodney had said earlier was true. It would be much too dangerous to move John; they had to give Rodney a chance to try to improve the odds.
"Doctor McKay is right, John. Do not worry, Ronon and I will keep watch over Rodney; we won't let him damage himself seriously."
They all knew it was a lie, including John. There was no way Rodney could avoid hurting himself trying to heal John. It was the way his ability worked. John's eyes were so full of pain and guilt when he looked at Rodney.
"I'm..." He started to cough but that just caused even more pain.
"Don't you dare apologise, just... don't..."
Rodney threw caution to the wind. Teyla and Ronon could be trusted so he leaned down and kissed John, softly, gently.
"I'm gonna get you home, John."
He could feel the effect his words had on John. There was still fear and pain and guilt and a whole raft of other emotions but overlaying all of them was an absolute trust and confidence that Rodney would do what he said.
John nodded once his eyes fixed on Rodney's.
When they both looked at Teyla she was smiling gently.
"Finally." It was a fair imitation of Rodney's tone and manner and even John managed a kind of a smile.
"Agreed," Ronon rumbled. He'd brought the med-kit and the stretcher, fresh water and spare ammunition.
Rodney nodded and squeezed John's hand gently.
"Okay, Teyla can you deal with the remaining open wounds please."
Ronon stilled suddenly.
"Oh crap!" It was a way away, but distracted from John for the moment, Rodney could feel it at the edge of his consciousness, a mix of violent emotions. It was just a flicker, in and out, but it was definitely there.
"Time to get started."
Ronon started gathering some fair-sized rocks while Rodney got to work. He trusted the big man and Teyla to protect them without question, leaving him clear to help John as much as he could.
Closing his eyes Rodney sank into the tunnel that was the start of this whole process of mending broken bodies.
Within minutes he was sweating and he could vaguely feel Teyla wiping his face with a damp towel. It helped.
Oh, this was so not going to be good. The pain was building in his chest, more and more, and he could feel his breathing going shallower as he tried desperately to mend what the creature had broken inside John.
It wasn't working. Actually it was, but it wasn't working enough. Rodney was gasping for air, Teyla doing everything she could, everything she'd ever seen John do to try to help, but Rodney knew he wasn't doing enough for them to be able to move John without at least one of the broken ribs puncturing his lung.
There was only one thing for it.
Rodney forced himself to take several deep breaths, wrapped one arm securely round his own midriff and let himself sink further inside John.
He felt the give as his own rib broke and couldn't help the whimper that escaped. How in god's name was John still conscious through all this? The man was unreal.
When he'd felt his own rib breaking he'd also felt John's begin to knit together. He pushed as hard as he could, knew he was moaning softly all the time now, knew Teyla was growing more and more concerned but he was almost there.
The rib held, enough he hoped.
But Rodney knew he wasn't done yet.
He moved on to the other two and did enough to hold them. The world was greying out around him and he could hear Ronon's low voice tense with worry, talking to Teyla, planning how to protect him and John.
Something was coming closer and when Rodney stopped concentrating on John for a minute he could feel it too, much closer than before.
"Rodney!" Teyla's voice was low, but she was putting as much force into it as she could.
He checked John one more time. His healing was holding, but only just.
He tried to reinforce it and cried out at the pain in his own chest.
"Rodney!" Teyla again.
Rodney opened his eyes.
Ronon was crouched in front of him.
"McKay we have to move there's at least two more of the creatures coming closer we need to go, now!"
Rodney nodded, words were beyond him still.
"Tell us what to do, McKay." The low urgency in Ronon's voice cut through the pain and the worry and the fear.
Rodney nodded again but the deep breath he tried to take almost cut him in two. He panted rapid and shallow for a minute until the worst of the pain receded enough for him to be able to speak.
"Need to get him on the board, carefully."
"Can you help?"
Ronon helped Rodney to his feet, but the world instantly spun around him and he staggered, almost crashing into the same tree John had before Ronon caught him.
"Lift him carefully on to the board and get him back to the jumper. I'll follow you."
Teyla and Ronon both looked unsure and that spurred Rodney to frustration enough for him to push through the worst of his own pain.
"Come on, get to it. Don't waste all my hard work by getting us caught by more of the damn things. Move! I'll follow."
Rodney watched wincing and worrying as Teyla and Ronon lifted John on to the board as gently as they could. He reached for the med bag. Sensibly Ronon had taken their packs back to the jumper when he went for the medical kit.
"Come on, McKay."
Keeping his arm wrapped tightly round his own chest Rodney dragged himself and the med bag along behind his teammates. They were halfway there when the two creatures appeared on the other side of the jumper.
"Don't think they've spotted us, we need to speed up a bit."
One thing Rodney was sure of was that after all he'd just done he did not want any of them to die now, not that he ever did but after all his hard work dying now would so not be a good idea for anyone.
Ronon had left the back of the jumper down and he and Teyla were carefully but quickly setting John down inside.
Rodney felt rather than saw the shimmer as one of the creatures phased less than ten feet away from him.
A huge rock flew through the air to his left and he heard the sound of gunfire.
"Step on it, McKay."
There was nothing for it but to run fast. Seconds later Teyla was hauling him into the jumper and the back hatch closed just as the second creature shimmered into view right beside the hatch.
It wasn't long before they heard roaring and the jumper started to rock.
"You gotta get us out of here, McKay."
Rodney dropped into the pilot's seat and by some miracle managed to get the jumper into the air. Vaguely he wondered for the umpteenth time if his Ancient gene and his ability were correlated in some way because he was sure he'd never been able to do it this fast before.
Once they were in the air they were effectively safe so Rodney cloaked the jumper and went back to check on John.
The worst of the stabilised ribs had cracked again and another jolt would shear it through, but other than that nothing was any worse than it had been before.
He pushed himself to repair the rib so it was stable and then went back to piloting the jumper.
Teyla stayed with John and Ronon came up front to sit in the cockpit with Rodney.
"Tired, exhausted in fact."
Ronon handed him a bottle of water. It was fresh from the cooler and it helped.
"Nothing we can do?"
"No... thanks, nothing. It seems to be a purely personal thing."
Just then a voice came over the jumper radio.
"AG1 this is Lorne, respond please."
"Oh thank God. Lorne this is McKay, where are you?"
"We just came through the gate. Heading your way. You sound rough, McKay. You guys in the air I take it."
Rodney gestured at Ronon, talking was hard work.
"Lorne this is Ronon. Sheppard's injured. McKay healed what he could, but now they're both in a bad way and McKay's having to pilot our jumper."
"If we land we can send over our second pilot."
"Okay but we need to land close, swap fast, and leave immediately."
"Ah. You found the natives to be unfriendly."
"Okay. McKay, can you hover where you are, you're over a reasonable landing site and we're about five minutes away."
Rodney slowed the jumper and let it hover in place.
"On our way."
Rodney sat back. His eyes were starting to close.
"Hey not yet, McKay. Need you to put the jumper down than you can sleep all you want."
Lorne was better than his word. It only took three minutes for the second jumper to appear beside them.
Slowly Rodney landed the jumper and seconds later Corporal Pearce Munro had them back in the air and they were following Lorne to the gate. They had a marine field medic in the back with Sheppard.
"You okay, Doctor McKay?"
It was a question he could get heartily sick of after a while.
"Need to sleep."
The medic helped Teyla settle him on one of the benches.
"You did an amazing job, sir."
Rodney was asleep in seconds.
"You finally caught on then?"
"To what you are."
"Oh, hmm, yes, I guess."
The familiar voice sounded so real, so close.
Rodney didn't dare turn round. He could feel Carson's presence exactly like he had before, but this time he wasn't sure he wanted to see what he knew his friend had become.
"Aye, its perhaps best if you don't look."
Rodney nodded. He could feel enough, and see enough without turning, to know. Warmth, light, a preternatural calm and quiet, only one type of being felt like that.
"Did you always know?"
"Probably, not the details but I think I always knew something yes. Even before this I was drawn to you for more than just your dazzling charm and affable personality I suppose."
Rodney couldn't help wondering if rolling his eyes at an ascended being was considered a sin or something but he didn't let that stop him.
"Never thought you were." He restrained himself manfully from sticking his tongue out or pulling a face. The sound of the waves filled the pause before, "Hey, were you... teaching me?"
Rodney felt the grin just over his right shoulder.
"In a way, I suppose I was. I didn't know it then of course. Just thought I was answering questions from an insatiably curious hypochondriac mind."
"Oh thanks for that!"
"You're welcome, Rodney."
"You do realise that my being able to do all this now proves I'm right don't you. Medicine really is little more than voodoo."
"Well it is the way you practise it that's for sure."
Rodney shrugged and chuckled.
"Does this mean I'll end up like you?"
"I can't answer that, Rodney, you know that. Being one of The Fey doesn't necessarily mean ascension when it's time to pass on, that depends on any number of things not just your newfound powers."
Rodney nodded and sighed. "Still not sure I want to ascend anyway," he muttered softly, but not softly enough. Carson chuckled gently.
Rodney straightened suddenly. "Being one of the what?"
"The Fey. The ones touched by the other world, the fairy folk if you like, those who can breach the veil, see beyond the mortal, look beyond the stars..."
It all made a weird sort of sense in an ironic kind of way.
"Did I do something really bad to deserve this?"
"Depends how you look at it, lad. Many would call it a gift, an honour."
"It's a pain in the ass."
"Then it found an appropriate target didn't it? After all, you'd know all about that, Rodney."
"Oh very funny. Ha ha." Another pause then the inevitable, "Why me?"
"You mean you really don't know Rodney? Hasn't that genius brain of yours worked it out yet?" The voice gentled a little. "Why do you think?"
"If I knew the answer to that I wouldn't be asking now would I?"
"You know well enough, Rodney. You know enough about the laws of the universe, cause and effect, time and space, paradoxes, what makes universes tick the way they do, to know the answer to that."
Rodney thought for a minute about the words Carson had used to not answer his question.
"Are you saying that somehow I wanted this, Carson? 'Cause, honestly, I can assure you I..." Rodney trailed off.
There was no answer, though Rodney knew his ascended friend was still there. As a result the only phrase running through his mind was 'silence gives assent.'
Mind you, even Rodney knew that last statement hadn't been entirely honest. Before Atlantis it would have been, but now?
"Anyway, I'd best be off, else I'll be in even more hot water than usual. Tell John I said hello and... oh yes, I'm glad you and him finally got your arses in gear and sorted yourselves out."
Rodney knew he would get nothing more on the other subject.
"Sorted ourselves out?" He almost squeaked in indignation. "What do you mean?"
"Exactly that. So you can tell Elizabeth she owes me fifty quid, she said you'd never get together without someone pushing you into it but it seemed you managed it all on your ownsomes. I'm pleased for you anyway, Rodney, very pleased. Maybe now you'll try talking to each other about things."
"Hmmf, I doubt that, I really do. This is John you're talking about."
Once again Rodney felt the smile.
"Aye I guess you have a point there."
"And anyway, Elizabeth's still in a coma... thanks to me."
The light that had been fading slowly before Rodney spoke flared with a sudden intensity.
"Oi stop that. You weren't responsible and Elizabeth knows it. I could throttle Colonel Carter for being so careless with what she said, she should know better."
"Aye she does, she hears you and she knows and she'll tell you off properly when you get her back."
"No the man in the moon. Take care of yourself, Rodney and John too, I'll be watchin'..."
"Hey, Carson, wait, how am I supposed...?"
Rodney turned quickly, but the light had faded. There was nothing there.
John was allowed out of the infirmary a couple of days later. AG1 was on stand down, while both John and Rodney recovered. In the end Doctor Keller and Doctor Heightmeyer had both seemed more worried about Rodney than they had about John.
Rodney had done enough back on the planet to ensure that John was both healed and saved the worst of the recovery ordeal that would have surely followed. Provided John took it easy the medics were happy for him to be released from the infirmary to his quarters and there was a tacit understanding that implied into Rodney's care.
Rodney healed up fast from his mirror injuries as the medics had started calling them, but that wasn't unusual. Something in the ability meant that the injuries he sustained in healing someone else always healed much faster than any he sustained under his own steam. A bad electrical burn in the lab healed no faster for Rodney than for anyone else, but a broken rib sustained in healing the same injury on John was healed by the following day.
Besides giving the two men more time to spend with each other the upside to the whole incident was that it seemed to have been something of a breakthrough experience for Rodney. There were indications in the days and weeks following that it was becoming easier for him to handle the more ordinary injuries now. Things were no longer such a struggle or such an effort. He didn't get so exhausted, and worked faster which meant Rodney felt better about it all, felt more useful. Indications were that things would continue to improve.
"Ah, there you are." John slipped quietly into Elizabeth's room.
"Hey." Rodney looked up and smiled. "I took the radio off, didn't want to be interrupted."
John turned towards the door. "I can go if you want."
"Idiot." Rodney frowned up at John. "You don't class as an interruption."
John quirked a speculative eyebrow. "Oh?"
Rodney snorted softly in response.
"Watcha doin' anyway? I didn't think it was your shift with Elizabeth 'til later."
"It isn't, but I wanted to see what happened."
John frowned in response. "What happened with what?"
"Remember that article I showed you about people like me sometimes being able to help people in comas."
John's frowned deepened. "Is it wise to try that alone?"
Rodney grinned. "Not alone anymore am I?"
"True but you said there could be problems, Rodney, wouldn't it be better to get Heightmeyer and try it with the professionals here in case you need them."
"Maybe... probably... I don't know. I wasn't going to try anything serious, just see if I could feel something, anything. Do a preliminary test on the theory, kind of thing." Rodney shrugged.
John still wasn't convinced.
"How were you going to do that?"
"The articles all talk about it being a form of meditation. I need to aim for a state of empathic stillness whatever that is and then see if I can reach Elizabeth."
John's head tipped on one side and he nodded once. "Makes sense... I guess."
"Want me to get Heightmeyer?"
Rodney sighed. "Not really. I..." He stalled and sighed again.
John was puzzled. Rodney didn't have the greatest relationship with Kate but he respected her professionally so why was there a problem?
"Come on, Rodney, spit it out. Why don't you want Kate? Would Teyla be better, I'm sure she'd be more than happy to help you."
"Maybe eventually but..."
Rodney took a deep breath. This was ridiculous. He slept beside John every night and yet couldn't seem to tell him something so basic.
"Because after the last time this happened when I was dying, you were the one helping me meditate and now, now it doesn't seem right, doesn't work even without you there. You and meditating are inextricably linked in my head and... I want you to help, John, not Kate or Teyla or anyone else. The first time I try this the only person I want with me is you."
Rodney's gaze was fixed on Elizabeth so he didn't see John blink a few times.
For John it felt like the world had slowed down while Rodney was speaking. The man never ceased to surprise him. There were no words to describe how Rodney had just made him feel. John could feel his heart thudding in his chest, he had to find some words to tell Rodney he'd do anything Rodney wanted, anything at all to help him try to bring Elizabeth back to them.
"Rodney... I... I don't know what to say. Of course I'll try to help, just tell me what you need me to do."
Rodney looked up at John. "Thank-you, I thought you'd think I was being an idiot."
"Not this time."
"Oh thank-you!" Rodney looked indignant but he grinned suddenly and John felt the threatening emotional overload begin to dissipate.
"So what do you need me to do?"
"Ah, there's the thing. I don't really know. There isn't exactly a How to Bring Your Friends Out of a Coma manual I'm afraid, not that I can find anyway. I think it's more of a trial and error thing." Rodney's face showed his opinion of the imprecise nature of the whole exercise.
"O...kay... One thing."
"I wanna have Kate and Doctor Keller on standby just in case. Not in here with us," he added quickly when Rodney looked about to object. "But this is new ground for all of us, Rodney, and... let's just say I don't wanna take any unnecessary risks okay?"
John held his breath while Rodney thought about what he'd said, then let it out when the scientist nodded.
"Okay it's a sensible idea, they can wait outside. Like I said I think this is going to be a long, slow process."
"I'll go see Keller and call Kate."
Rodney nodded and John left to get the professionals organised.
It was a strange afternoon. John wasn't sure what his contribution was other than to watch over Rodney but that was nothing new, and if it was what Rodney wanted then so be it.
Rodney worked for just over an hour and it was obvious at the end of it that an hour was about the limit right now. He was absolutely shattered so John led him back to his own quarters and decided an early night was in order for both of them.
"Thanks for what you did, this afternoon. I know I probably haven't explained it very well but you really helped, just having you there."
John paused mid-pants-removal: they were getting ready for bed.
"Hey. You only gotta ask, Rodney, I'll be there. I want to be there. I'm still worried about the risks... but I know you have to try this... so..."
Rodney nodded. "Thank-you and I understand you're worried, but I need you to know what having you there meant to me..."
"S'okay Rodney I get it..."
Rodney smiled a little and got into his side of the bed. Minutes later John turned off the lights in the bathroom and joined him.
"You okay, Rodney?"
"Tired, meditating like that is hard work." Rodney's tone was heavy with irony.
"Actually I know it is, but thanks for being willing to try... I don't mind Carter but I want Elizabeth back..." John wasn't sure where that sentence was going to end up so he didn't continue.
"You and me both. Funny how something you always thought you really wanted so often turns out to be a disappointment."
"You mean Carter?"
Rodney nodded into the darkness then remembered John couldn't see it.
"Yeah. I always thought working with her would be... well I'm not sure really but it was something I always wanted. Two great minds working together, solving problems, making discoveries, but... I think I preferred it when it was just us. We screwed up, I screwed up." Rodney corrected himself quickly, "but we got the job done okay most of the time, now... Maybe I'm just being nostalgic for the old days."
It was John's turn to nod now.
"You didn't screw up that often." John's arms tightened round Rodney a little. "But yeah, I know what you mean. When we got kicked out back to Earth all I could think of was that when we first came here the thing that most of us really wanted deep down was to know we could go home. Then here became home and when we had to go... I hated it. Nothing was right, I didn't fit anywhere, none of us did, not even Carson. I got so desperate in the end that I asked him to send me some of his photos. I realised I didn't have any pictures of anyone and..."
Rodney hugged John closer.
"I ordered a camera on the first supply run after we got back."
"Really? Why? We have loads of cameras you could have just borrowed one." Rodney was genuinely puzzled.
"Because I wanted my own. I've never got round to using it. We were here, back where we belonged and I had the reality, the people, you, Carson, Elizabeth Teyla, Ronon. I didn't need pictures. Anyway by the time the thing arrived we were back into all the craziness of life here and I just put it away without doing any more than taking it out of its box.
Then things went even more crazy and before I knew it I'd lost Carson and then Elizabeth... but... but suddenly out of all the crap I got you... us... I'll get it out tomorrow." John squeezed Rodney gently again.
It was the nearest to a discussion about how they felt about each other they were ever going to get.
Rodney found John's hand under the covers where it rested on his hip and laced their fingers together. "I understand," he whispered softly.
They were both asleep between one breath and the next.
The alarm klaxon sounded all over the city.
John was instantly awake. He leapt out of bed, talking into his radio as he dressed.
Rodney was a few seconds behind but a minute later they were both racing through the halls to the control room yelling orders as they ran.
Carter met them at the top of the stairs.
"Two unidentified ships just dropped out of hyperspace, short-range sensors picked them up a moment ago."
"So not Wraith and not Asuran then."
"Well definitely not Wraith."
"But the Asurans could be up to anything."
Chuck got out of Rodney's way as the scientist started poring over the sensor readings.
"Oh they are big!"
"How big, McKay?"
"Canadian football field big."
Carter rolled her eyes, but Sheppard's little grin matched the twist from Rodney's mouth.
Teyla, Ronon and Zelenka arrived together from the other transporter.
"Lorne's standing by in the jumper bay. The marines are all geared up and at station." Ronon handed Rodney a vest and holster.
Teyla handed John his vest and P90 as she gave her report. "Doctor Keller has field medical teams standing by and the infirmary is ready if necessary. Damage control teams are already in place throughout the city."
It was a well-oiled machine.
"Defence cube is fully operational, all sensors working at optimum and a team is ready in the chair room." The last came from Zelenka.
"This is Major Conrad, all 302s manned and ready. Mnenosyne standing by Ma'am." Conrad was Carter's number two on the Asgard hybrid ship.
"Sensors picking up increased power readings form the two ships." Chuck's voice was tense, but his tone was level.
"Who the hell are they?"
"Looks like weapons powering up." Zelenka spoke from Rodney's other side.
"Simpson swing the cube round so its corner is facing directly at them and drop it down by a thousand feet." Rodney hadn't taken his eyes from the laptop data.
Zelenka's eyebrows rose and he nodded.
Carter looked surprised for a minute then nodded too. "Good call, McKay."
"It'll force them to skim the atmosphere and even if they're capable it won't be a comfortable ride."
John couldn't help the soft gleam of pride that shone in his eyes.
"Okay so we have the city shield up and the defence cube on line. Next move is theirs."
John Sheppard was the luckiest man in two galaxies. He knew this with the kind of bone deep certainty he'd only ever had about one other thing, knowing he wanted to fly.
Lantean moonlight bathed the room in silvery shafts that wavered and shifted before settling to highlight pearly pale skin and fine sandy hair.
Rodney lay curled into John's side his head on John's chest, one hand hooked over John's shoulder and one leg, resting heavily across John's thighs.
John nuzzled the soft strands of hair that were tickling his chin, resisting the urge to plant kisses no matter how soft. The exhausted scientist desperately needed to sleep and John didn't want to risk waking him.
He was snoring, softly for Rodney, ruffling John's chest hairs with each breath a little puddle of drool gathering on the skin beneath Rodney's lips. John didn't care as long as he held Rodney in his arms nothing else mattered.
Oh yeah, John Sheppard was definitely the luckiest guy, in any galaxy.
The room fell into darkness.
The moonlight moved on, pleased it had made its point.