Rodney wakes in darkness, but the flashes of pain that ripple through his body are sharp enough to register as pinpricks of light against his eyelids when he presses them shut. The air around him is thick with the tang of concrete and metal; his throat and lungs feel coated with dust as he takes his first conscious, gasping breath. There is a numb sort of weight on his legs, and Rodney experiences a moment of sheer terror at the thought of having a broken back, of being wheelchair-bound and perennially stuck in the lab. His fear overrides the pain, but only just—until he shifts his weight slightly and a jagged slice of agony resonates from his left ankle in all directions.
It takes him forever to orient himself; there is a solid, unyielding surface both under his knees and against his left shoulder, and he can feel the force of gravity working on every inch of him, from every direction. Moving leaves him dizzy and feeling an awful lot like an unwilling test subject in the research of blunt force trauma, though intellectually he knows that he's lucky to be alive at all. This is cold comfort, particularly when his mind finally begins to clear enough to recognize that there's an extra layer of sound above his rasping for breath and the too-loud roaring of his pulse in his ears. A distant, uneven whine slides from pitch to pitch indiscriminately, and Rodney can't latch onto it, can't place it. Every time he tries, his awareness slips away like fingertips on a ledge.
It nags at him, like it's supposed to be important but he's lost the focus to decipher exactly how, so the sound just hovers there, brushing against his ears just as the elusive columns of daylight brush against his eyes when he wills them open. The world as he knows it is completely abstract, with no reference points beyond the slant of sun, steel, and shadow and the grimy stone under his hands. Then the noise changes, whether by proximity or by his own returning consciousness, and Rodney experiences a few curious seconds of association. It sounds a little like… like an electric guitar, of all things. He's puzzled until his mind makes the second, grim leap, and then all he can see against his tightly closed eyelids are the faces of his team, of Lorne, Ronon, John—battered by rubble or sucked dry, dead, dead, dead…
When Rodney next opens his eyes, the light has shifted, and so has the temperature. This is disheartening, given that he's in the same position as before, but before he can work up enough energy to feel abandoned, he hears a shout somewhere above him. He can't quite make out words, and this is worrying enough that he keeps his eyes closed for fear of what his pain-hazed mind will make of his surroundings. Soon enough, the sounds draw closer, and he's able to lift a corner of his mouth in a hidden smile when he hears a voice he can recognize.
"Hang in there, McKay!" Sam calls out, close enough for him to hear the weariness mixed with elation in her voice. Rodney's throat feels like he's swallowed a quart of sand chased down with a few cups of silt, so he rests his head on the rough slab in front of him and waits, turning all his thoughts toward rescue and away from failure.
By the time he feels the cool night wind on his back, he's delirious again, trying to push himself up toward the fresh air with arms grey with dust and weak from shock. Sam's scolding voice sounds like Jeannie's, and he opens his mouth to tell his sister he'd been right to replace his subcutaneous transmitter—but the gentle hands lifting him up aren't gentle enough, and he passes out again when his injured ankle knocks against hard stone.
Rodney has perfected the art of waking slowly without opening his eyes, a defense mechanism borne out of his habit of falling asleep in inopportune places. He can tell he's in the infirmary by the (thank god) pleasant numbness that he recognizes is a result of really good pain meds, the kind that only come in IV form. His brief stab of worry about what this might mean regarding the extent of his injuries is soon replaced by a lingering dread. Out of ten people trapped in a collapsing building, how many could realistically have survived? Rodney knows his breathing has quickened, that it's only a matter of time before someone notices he's awake and starts to tell him what he isn't sure he wants to hear. He tries to calm himself with his usual chants and visualization, but all 'clear blue skies' nets him is an image of the rubble he'd been trapped in—how the roof had come tumbling down, replaced with emptiness.
Except—the sky hadn't been empty. Rodney gasps, his hazy mind finally recalling the detail he had thought was so important to hold onto before passing out the second time. He thinks he can hear the sounds of people scurrying to his bedside, but his chest feels too tight and his mouth is completely dry and his pulse is racing and damn it, he can feel the blackness threatening to overwhelm him again as he opens his eyes. The shapes around the bed are blurry and he's frustrated beyond all comprehension, but one of them steps forward and it's Sam, covered in dirt. He wants to ask her why she's wasting time in the infirmary. He wants to scream at her to tell him if Jo—Sheppard, his emotions are too raw to take chances with tone of voice, right now—is all right. He needs—but there's one thing that's more important, and he reaches out blindly, catching her wrist with fingers that feel like they're made of the same powdered debris she's caked with.
"Dart," he says with a gravelly cough, and she reaches out a hand of her own, clasping his shoulder and leaning forward.
"Are you sure?"
"Po-positive," he affirms, and with a squeeze, she's gone, replaced by Dr. Biro with a cup of water that he would have really, really wanted if he wasn't already sliding back into unconsciousness.
John finds fear inconvenient. This makes life very frustrating for him because fear-inducing situations seem to find him the pollen to their life-sucking, self-replicating bee. He'd love to be as unconcerned on the inside as he projects on the outside, but unconcerned is a difficult frame of mind achieve when, after failing to find one of your closest friends, the building you were searching starts to collapse on you and the rest of your team.
John skidded forward on the uncertain floor with Ronon's heavy but reassuring weight on his back, but despite the splitting pain in his ribs that had him seeing stars in the sudden-dark, and the worrying numbness of his arm beneath him, he didn't pass out.
That Ronon did was more troubling than the absence of light or the fact that John couldn't find his radio. Taking a deep breath and shouting when surrounded by dust and a possibly limited oxygen supply didn't seem like a good idea, so John decided to try to find Ronon's earpiece instead. The silence around them was deafening, and John's slow, pained movements in search of the radio were punctuated by an internal monologue that sounded suspiciously like McKay. There were cutting remarks on the brilliance of trying to arch his back with God only knew how many pounds of Satedan and concrete pressing down on him, as well as a sarcastic observation of 'Why yes, Colonel, that does appear to be Ronon's knee. You do realize that's nowhere near his ear, don't you?' John was pretty sure his version of McKay wasn't quite acerbic enough given their dire circumstances, but the running commentary was helpful and distracting and kind of comforting in ways that John really didn't want to think about.
When his hands brushed against solid rock somewhere in the vicinity of his teammate's shoulders, he was concerned, but not really surprised—after all, John himself had landed squarely against one of the large pipes that had fallen from the ceiling, and it made sense that they would be surrounded by debris. It wasn't until Carter, Cadman, and a group of determined and angry marines dug them out that John discovered exactly how fortunate he and Ronon had been.
It turned out that the concrete he'd felt near Ronon's head had been one of two massive blocks that had missed crushing them thanks to their difference in inertia—where he and Ronon had been sliding sideways, the blocks had fallen straight down. This meant that the material had landed beside rather than on them, but Ronon's hair had gotten caught in the middle.
He stared at the tangled mess of stone and dreadlocks for long enough that Colonel Carter had to order him to head back through the Stargate to the infirmary so the medical team could sort out his injuries. John wasn't about to tell Carter that he was prepared to disobey her in favor of joining the search for survivors, but since he and Ronon were the last ones found, he and Carter were both spared that confrontation.
When he reaches the infirmary, John immediately starts asking about the status of his team, and he soon finds out that with the exception of one of his lieutenants whose condition is still critical, everyone made it out without major injuries. John doubts McKay will see it that way when he wakes up with a broken ankle, though. John himself is mostly just bruised (ribs) and scraped (everywhere else,) which means that he is given some decent painkillers, told to stay put, and is left alone, for the most part. He wants to be around when the others regain consciousness, but the painkillers knock him out in a matter of minutes.
The lights are dim when John wakes, and when his eyes adjust enough to make out the clock, he sees that it's early morning. John knows he ought to stay in bed, but he's not about to start a new behavior trend now, so he gets up carefully, silently thanking Dr. Biro for opting out of an IV. Then he starts checking beds, starting with one next to his.
Dr. Keller finds him at the foot of Lorne's bed, frowning at the bandage that covers most of his 2IC's head.
"Concussion," she says softly, nodding at Lorne. "He'll be fine. Sore, but fine," she adds, giving him a direct look that tells him she's not just talking about Lorne. Keller doesn't fuss, like Carson would have, but the way her lips press together into a tired but reassuring smile has about the same effect.
"Listen… Doc," John starts to say, but Jennifer holds up a hand.
"Your ribs need rest," she says. "And that arm's going to hurt for days; you're lucky your shoulder didn't dislocate—"
"I had a little weight on me," John says, remembering not to shrug, just in case.
"Yes, well, you should get more sleep, once you've finished assuring yourself that everyone is okay, of course." Her smile is genuine this time. John looks down at Lorne and nods, reassured by his steady breathing.
"Rodney? Ronon?" he asks.
"I'm all right," Ronon rumbles from behind a curtain to their left. Keller slides it aside, and Ronon's sitting up. If it weren't for the hint of stiffness in the way he's holding himself, John would assume his biggest complaint is wearing hospital scrubs. "Can I take this off yet?" The other man's fingers trace the bandage that encompasses his entire head. John doesn't blame him for wanting it off; it isn't a good look for his friend.
"You should probably leave it on for a few more hours," Keller says, moving swiftly past John to bat Ronon's big hands away from the edge of the gauze as she examines it. "Besides," she says, her voice changing to be a little softer, more defensive. "I—I thought you'd want—"
"It's just hair," Ronon interrupts. The bluntness in his tone tells John he'll be just fine.
"…no evidence of Wraith activity." The voice is female, low and steady, and far enough away that Rodney isn't sure how long he'd been listening to it before he realized he's awake. He doesn't feel ready to find out what's happened, not yet, so he struggles to keep his breathing steady and his body still.
Rodney's always been good at keeping secrets and terrible at telling lies, a dichotomy that only works because he rarely has occasion to lie about what his job entails in a place like Atlantis. He's less used to hiding how he feels about—well, about anything, but he's nothing if not determined. They're subtle adjustments, really. On Earth it had become easy to replace his mental response of 'saving the world' with 'something really, really complicated that you would never understand' when asked what he did for a living; on Atlantis, he'd learned to replace a certain name in his head with 'Colonel' and 'Sheppard' in conversation. Rodney's life is mostly focused around self-preservation, after all, and if he allows himself the luxury of saying that name out loud once or twice after four years of abstinence, there's no real harm done. He can keep a secret when he's motivated enough.
"That doesn't mean they weren't there," a man's voice says, pulling Rodney back from his floating contemplations and back to reality. It's John—and it sounds like it's coming from the doorway, which means he's not only alive, but he's up and walking. Pure relief flows through Rodney's veins for a long minute, ratcheting up his pulse. It's almost certainly alerting his quiet visitors to the fact that he's regained consciousness, but Rodney finds he's no longer as afraid of what they might tell him. He opens his eyes gradually, wincing when the room's brightness proves to be too much for him. Almost immediately, the ambient light dims; the first person he's able to focus on is John, who is looking up at the ceiling with an expression of satisfaction so familiar that Rodney wants to laugh. Trust Sheppard to turn laziness into something cool by doing things with his mind.
Now that he's no longer being half-blinded, Rodney sees that John looks as beat up and bruised as Rodney feels, though he has changed out of his uniform and into the scratchy clothes provided by the infirmary.
"How you feeling, buddy?" John's voice is careful—too careful. Rodney wonders just how bad he really looks.
'Glad you're alive' and 'I'll be okay' Rodney responds, or wants to. What he really says is: "Hungry," rasped in a dry, cracked voice that begs for water. He thinks Sheppard probably gets the gist, though, since there's a smile on the man's face as he takes the cup Sam passes to him. Rodney draws in a grateful sip, noting the dirt on the hand John uses to hold the straw steady. The rest of him looks washed, if not clean, and Rodney wonders if he'd just neglected to rinse his hands thoroughly or if the pulverized stone particles have embedded themselves into Sheppard's skin. It's a chilling thought to Rodney, and he imagines it would be even worse for John—another reminder of the failure of their mission.
"Team," Rodney attempts next, and it's as if the water's done nothing at all. He squeezes his eyes shut and just lets the coughs wrack through him, grateful for the strong support he gets from either side of the bed, helping him sit up and hunch over. It finally passes, and there's still a hand on his shoulder. It's John's, it has to be, and while Rodney knows he's concussed and his ankle is almost certainly broken and no one would think anything of it, he doesn't give in to the urge to reach up and squeeze. In the back of his mind, the part that's whole and sound despite the terror and the inevitable head injury, he thinks that the absence of that gesture is probably more telling than anything else, but luckily, hardly anyone is gifted with that level of perception.
"The building's hallways seem to have been the safest place to be," Sam tells him in a steady, matter-of-fact voice. Rodney keeps his eyes shut under the guise of pain of a different sort, and waits for the bad news, grounded by John's warm presence at his side, on his shoulder. "Most of the team got by with cuts and bruises, a few broken bones—you and Lorne both have concussions—but Lt. Cern was caught under a section of wall…" Sam's voice falters, and Sheppard picks up for her.
"Dr. Keller is working on him now—he got worse in the middle of the night—but she says he'll probably pull through." Rodney can hear the guilt in John's voice and he wants to scold him, to point out that it was Rodney's intel that brought them to that place, but that's tough to get across in one word, and he's not anxious to start coughing again. Rodney slowly turns to look at Sheppard, taking in the bruise and the fresh scabs that ghost along his left arm up into his sleeve, how his customary slouch doesn't account for the way he's favoring that side.
"Most of this is from Ronon shoving me down and playing human shield," John says with a wry smile, dropping his hand and looking down at himself. "I'm pretty sure I've got a mark on my back the same shape as his gun." Rodney lifts an eyebrow. "He's okay," Sheppard says, responding to the unspoken question. Rodney then makes a face that he hopes looks more incredulous than pained. "Don't get me wrong, he's one big bruise, and—"
"We're lucky that all Ronon lost was some hair," Sam interrupts. Her tone shifts to businesslike and she steps closer to the bed. "Rodney, the Daedalus's long range scanners haven't picked up any hive ships close enough to that planet to account for a scout ship. Are you sure—"
Rodney nods and reaches for the water. "Modi-modified," he chokes out after a long gulp, then, "Michael." He sees Sam nod thoughtfully and look up. Following her gaze, Rodney sees Dr. Keller at the doorway, looking concerned. Carter murmurs an apology and heads over, leaning close to Jennifer as they discuss something that looks serious, though after a minute or so Sam uncrosses her arms and smiles.
"Looks like the lieutenant's out of the woods," Sheppard says, his eyes on the pair at the door—and now Rodney can reach out, because it's not just about him anymore. John's hand is braced within reach on the bed, and Rodney drops his on top and squeezes 'I'm alive' with as strong a grip as he can manage. Sheppard's not in a position to squeeze back, but he doesn't move away either, not even when Rodney's finger slides down to press against his wrist, feeling the pulse there. 'So am I.' John's gaze doesn't waver, but Rodney doesn't want to have to feel him pull away, so he takes a calculated breath and covers the resulting cough with both hands, one warmer than the other.
"The device was activated not long before I arrived."
Michael nods, more for himself than for the scout standing dull and straight behind him. "The database?" he asks, tilting his head for the answer without moving his gaze from the still form sleeping in the cell below.
"My second pass was from farther away," his creation says, its voice closer now. "Their search of the ruins did not seem to stop with the bodies."
"Good," Michael says. "Prepare for your next task, and report to me before you leave." Without looking to see if he is obeyed, he turns back to spread his weight across the transparent partition between his room and the next, his smooth palms leaving slanted smear marks as he leans forward, watching.
Rodney takes a minute to thank fate for sparing his fingers from injury before he snatches the tablet computer from Sheppard's hand and starts typing. He doesn't ponder the fact that John's spent most of the past day and a half in his presence. He doesn't want to. Sheppard's unofficially confined to the infirmary after proving that 'taking it easy' hadn't been in his agenda once he'd been released the day before—and, after all, it's not as if he and John don't spend time together on a normal day. In any case, as soon as they'd finished with lunch, Rodney hadn't spent more than five minutes whining about being bored and exiled from his computer (again) before the man had disappeared for a short time and come back with it. He wonders how much time he'll have to check up on his underlings' work before Keller appears at the door and takes the tablet away again with more stern imprecations to "Sleep, Rodney—you should really be resting." He huffs indignantly.
"You're welcome," John says pointedly from the chair beside the bed. He's got War and Peace with him, and is sitting in a kind of forced casual way that Rodney suspects is meant to discourage questions about his well-being and hide that his ribs are still bothering him. It's not working at all, and somehow looks more painful than if Sheppard had just sat normally for a man painted with bruises.
"You're supposed to be watching for Keller, unless you want to liberate this thing from her office for the third time in the space of four hours," Rodney says by way of thanks. "I'd really like to see what they've managed to break while I've been stuck in here. I don't know why she insists on taking my computer away, anyway—even I know I'm not pleasant to be around when I'm bored."
"The time would go a lot faster if you spent at least some of it sleeping, like you're supposed to," John says in a bland voice.
"Yes, because that worked so well for you and Ronon," Rodney says, and winces. He wishes there were a way to take back the past two days—the past three weeks actually. He doesn't ever want to go through the stages of grief again when it comes to John Sheppard, even if he hadn't made it past the 'denial' phase. "The only reason I'm still subjected to this torture is that my ankle is broken and I can't get away. When Sam broke her leg—"
"Colonel Carter is in a lot better shape than you are, Rodney," John points out, and Rodney can't help shooting him a look, noting with relief that Sheppard's words appear to carry no hidden meanings other than stating an embarrassing fact. He wonders when it was that his moods stopped turning on a dime whenever Carter was mentioned, and decides that he's probably better off not knowing. Denial isn't just a stage of grief, after all.
"Colonel Sheppard, please respond," Colonel Carter's voice calls from his radio. John sits up too quickly from his slouch ("Ow, damnit.") and taps his own.
"Sheppard here, I'm with McKay."
"We've think we've found the Wraith tech he described. It's damaged, but looks salvageable. I estimate we're looking at an hour, maybe two before it'll be portable, and that's about the most time I want to spend here—we have no way of knowing when or if any more scout ships will come back. We've spent too much time here as it is."
"Has there been any indication of other ships in the area?" John asks a split second before Rodney voices his own concern.
"I'm going to have to take a look at it somewhere other than Atlantis, Sam—there were no indications on the scanner that the building was wired up to blow." Rodney still feels like he missed something; Michael is good, no doubt about that, but Rodney knows he's better. "There could be some kind of a beacon, or—"
"Tracking device. Yeah, I thought of that. John, can you pick a team to head to the Alpha site and prep it? Supplies for three days, maybe more, minimal military presence."
"On it," John says, pulling himself to his feet.
"I won't need much more than a day, unless he set up some kind of deletion algorithm," Rodney objects. "Not that I'd put it past him," he adds darkly. Finally, he tells himself, something to do!
"Rodney, we're not sure our new Alpha site is secure yet, and if this thing is booby trapped in some way we haven't detected, everyone there will need to be able to get out and make it to the gate as quickly as possible." Sam sounds apologetic, and Rodney's eyes dart over to catch John's as the other man hovers in the doorway waiting for an end to their impromptu meeting.
"That's fine. I can take a puddlejumper and cloak it nearby—problem solved," Rodney says swiftly, but it's too late, he can tell by the tone of her voice.
"I'm sorry, Rodney, but I just can't risk that. I'm going to have Zelenka take this project for now, but you can keep tabs on his progress during each check-in," Carter offers, as though this will make up for his being stuck in bed while someone else gets to do all the fun stuff.
"Look at it this way—now you'll have motivation to heal faster," John says, too low for Carter to hear.
"Yes, Colonel, because I'm actually only still here because I enjoy your company so much I faked a very painful injury just to spend time with you," Rodney grouses, forgetting to key off his mic. He assures himself that it still counts as sarcasm because there's no way in hell he'd engineer a situation this boring just so John would stay in proximity. He's too much of a genius to go to those extremes.
"That would work better if I were actually injured, McKay," Sam says impudently. He's pretty sure he's the one who indirectly taught her to project that level of smugness in her tone of voice, not that it makes him feel any better. "Carter out."
"See you, Rodney," John says, slipping from view before Rodney can come up with a sufficient retort. He's certain that whatever pain medications Dr. Keller has him on are seriously impairing his intellect, because he is still sitting there clutching his computer with his mouth hanging open three minutes later when she comes to check up on him.
"This was hardly worth it, was it?" Jennifer says as she pulls the laptop from his unresisting fingers. He really wants to argue, but he's tired and grumpy, and losing tug of war just isn't what he has in mind for his ego right now. Not to mention the fact that he wasn't successful in holding onto it the first two times, anyway. This turns out to work in his favor, as Keller eyes him sympathetically for a minute before speaking again.
"I tell you what. You take a nap, I let you have three hours without fear of laptop seizure. Deal?"
"Deal," Rodney agrees sourly, shutting his eyes—ostensibly to sleep, but really to plan a way of getting the infirmary clocks to pause at every fifth second. He drifts off into a light sleep in the middle of trying to decide whether the time and effort this will take would be worth the resulting extra thirty-six minutes.
It's not hard to find volunteers; John has his team and their supplies ready by lunchtime, and once he sees what Radek has prepared to take with him, he decides there's no need to "rationalize" a puddlejumper, it's become a necessary addition. John asks Coleson, Schmidt, Key, and Farber to start loading the jumper with Zelenka's supervision while he and Carter agree on regular check-in times. Jumper Two is as responsive as ever as they sail through the gate, and he parks within easy distance of the sturdy tent and cinderblock structure they have for shelter on the Alpha site.
While John organizes his men, sending two into the nearby hills to keep watch for ships, and the other two to the gate itself, Zelenka supervises the setup of his equipment and starts to interface it with what Michael left behind. He watches the marines' retreating backs for a few minutes, squinting up at the irregular sunlight before he heads into the tent to find a comfortable place to keep an eye on Radek's progress.
After having spent a careful hour of interfacing and another of quiet swearing in Czech, Radek is bouncing back and forth between the two workstations he's set up. Before long John starts to feel a little like he's a referee in some sort of lab-related tennis. In this scenario, though, an 'out' means one of the consoles blows up in their faces—or worse. Almost as if he can read John's mind, Zelenka makes a distressed noise and hunches over his primary laptop.
"Radek?" John asks, getting up from his solitaire game to peer over the other man's shoulder.
"As I thought," Zelenka says. "This is nothing more than a decoy. The data here is all linked, like… like digital trap. Accessing these folders for any length of time means the rest all…" He throws his hands up in a gesture that mimics a burst bubble. John thinks about this for a long moment, narrowing his eyes.
"But you can access some of it? It doesn't…" John's hand circles in on itself as he searches for the right phrasing. "Dissolve before you can catch anything?"
"Yes, it appears so—but what to pick?" Zelenka says, scrubbing a hand through his hair distractedly. "Was very clever of him. Just enough visible to pique interest, but any deeper and the rest will dissolve. And we have no way of knowing if the information we choose is not a false lead."
"Great," John says with deep sarcasm. "What do we have to pick from?"
Radek shoots him a look of excitement mixed with regret. "This one shows the location of every planet where Michael has a base," he said, pointing to each symbol in turn. "Here is what seems to be location beacons for Wraith ships—I cannot tell whether these are just ones under his control or perhaps also those he has tagged." John gives a low whistle, motioning Zelenka to continue, and the scientist taps a different glyph on the display screen. "Detailed maps and diagrams with symbols I do not recognize, but they appear to be of each base Michael is operating. I recognize a few gate addresses." He pauses, and then points again. "This is list of what could be names, but I cannot translate. There are… very many of them."
"Hybrids?" John guesses.
"We will hope not." Radek's expression is grim. "This one I still do not understand," he adds, pulling up an image from one of the other computers. It looks like a screenshot showing the contents of the last folder. John tips his head to the side, trying to make sense of the jumble of characters and symbols until…
"They're—" John traces his finger across a line of what he recognizes as constellations.
"Gate addresses, yes," Radek finishes for him, an edge of uncertainty still present in his excitement. "But there is no correlation with data from the first list. I cannot see the pattern, and this worries me."
"Nothing's jumping out at me, either," John confesses after they stare at the image for a few more minutes. "We should check in, though," he says, tapping his radio to inform the men at the gate to be ready to dial.
"While you do that, I will scan these images," Zelenka says. He had cheerfully explained to John on the ride over of the 'complicated transmission procedure' he'd put together to protect the Atlantis mainframe from any programs buried in the data. When Radek signals that his screenshots are ready to transfer, John sends the message to dial the gate.
Arbitrary time limits are among the top five of the middle twenty things Rodney absolutely hates, an assessment that solidifies after the fourth time he flicks his eyes anxiously toward the timer Jennifer ordered him to turn on in the corner of his laptop screen. He's decided to forego meddling with the clocks in the infirmary, as it turns out to be a lot more difficult than he'd initially thought to localize the effect, and he's not sure he wants to start messing with timekeeping on the entire base. He has enough trouble with failed experiments and other scientists' sheer stupidity already, and throwing off all of his department's time-sensitive projects just so he can have computer access for a little longer seems a bit selfish, even to him.
Unfortunately, when he had been planning what he was going to do once he got his hands on the computer he was much more focused than he is now that he's got it. Rodney isn't often a pragmatist—he tends to find conventional logic a little quaint—but he can recognize when a situation has the potential to snowball out of his control, and none of the projects he's currently overseeing will conform themselves to being worked on in neat, three hour segments. He suspects that Jennifer knew this when she offered him her tainted little olive branch, but being with a computer is much better than being without, so he's letting it go for now. He's just about to open the folder named 'Things I'll Never Have Time For' when the radio he left sitting hopefully on the blanket next to him says his name.
"Yes? Yes, I'm here," Rodney says, scrambling to attach the earpiece.
"Dr. Zelenka just called in from the Alpha site, and I thought you might like to be in on the report," Carter says.
"Finally! Uh. I mean, thank you, of course," he adds awkwardly. The amusement in her voice lets him know he hasn't managed to cover up his impatience.
"Channel four, McKay."
"Got it," he replies in his 'I am very busy and important!' tone. He switches the channel hurriedly, allowing himself a smile when he hears John's voice so close in his ear without warning.
"—looks like we're going to have to choose between them," Sheppard is saying. "You get ahold of McKay yet?"
"Right here," Rodney says. "So you were able to get something from the database, then?"
"Yes and no," Zelenka cuts in. "You were right—Michael set up a deletion program with bait folders."
"I could have lived without being right about that," Rodney says, frowning at the laptop screen in front of him.
"Yes, so could we all," Radek says. "Luckily, I was able to access them briefly before the program triggered—I am sending screenshots of the contents to both of you now."
"Thanks Radek. Rodney, do you have access to a computer?" Colonel Carter asks.
"Yes, I'm seeing them now, no thanks to our draconian doctor," Rodney grumbles, looking up to see that Dr. Keller is, in fact, standing in the doorway. "Uh, hi. Call-in from the Alpha site," he says, pointing unnecessarily at his earpiece. "You know how Zelenka can be when he's under pressure," Rodney adds to cover his blunder, remembering not to key the mic this time. Her sweet smile is anything but encouraging.
"Channel four, is it?" she asks, and Rodney narrows his eyes at her as he nods, wondering if she made a good guess or if Jennifer has been standing there the whole time without him noticing. Knowing her, both are equally plausible.
"This is quite the bait," Sam says, and Rodney nods despite the fact that no one but Jennifer can see him. He arranges the images on his desktop, looking for patterns and signals, something to indicate that one has an advantage over another. When Keller steps closer to peer at the screen, he hardly registers her presence.
"Radek, have you been able to pinpoint any sort of structure to the gate addresses in this last screenshot?" Rodney asks his colleague.
"Not yet. I doubt it is random, but—"
Carter cuts in. "I've asked Chuck to plug them into the database; he should have something for us soon."
"Actually…" Jennifer says, keying her mic as she leans over to squint at the list of symbols before speaking again, her voice mildly apologetic. "Not to butt in or anything."
"A fresh set of eyes is often quite helpful," Zelenka says encouragingly.
"Nice to feel appreciated," Rodney grumbles, mostly to himself.
"Aww, McKay, no need to be jealous," Jennifer says, but she's nervously tucking her hair behind one ear.
"Well, go on," Rodney says.
"Give me a minute," she murmurs, her lips moving at odds with her fingertips, clearly comparing data between her memory and the information on the screen. After a minute, she straightens and speaks into her earpiece again. "If I'm right, this could be a mixed blessing," she tells the others. "I recognize the first five addresses as planets infected with the Hoffan virus. I suggest checking to see what data we have on the other three—my guess is they're probably inhabited." The apologetic tone and anxious hand gestures are gone, now. She crosses the room to grab a scrap of paper and starts noting down the addresses, and when she reaches for the laptop, Rodney surrenders it without question.
He stares at the ceiling in frustration. There's no question that they need this information—but he can't help wishing for a compromise, some way to mine the database for details that could help find Teyla without completely destroying the contents of the last folder.
"Colonel, what about the Daedalus? Has Caldwell left for Earth yet?" John asks, urgency thickening his voice.
"They set off yesterday. Actually, assuming the list in this screenshot is defining a pattern, and the database we salvaged is recent enough that Michael's still following that pattern, our ship should be coming up on the sixth planet," Sam answers.
"We still do not know how the virus is being spread, correct? The question now is, do you think there is time to prevent an outbreak?" Radek asks, mirroring what they're all thinking.
"We'll have to hope so. All right, I'll call Colonel Caldwell. I'd like to have a clearer picture of what our choices are by your next check-in, if at all possible," Carter says.
"Tell our guys to be careful?" Jennifer says quickly. "So far we've only dealt with populations who are no longer contagious, but—"
"I'll pass that along—and thank you," Sam says. "Carter out." With that, Keller absently hands Rodney back his machine and leaves the room without another word, leaving him to hope he no longer has to worry about a computer curfew.
The hunger is a constant, now, but his three-day journey is finally over, and all that stands between him and a safe return trip in stasis is the execution of his mission. He steers the dart into a low orbit above the atmosphere, eyes taking in the streams of data that tell him about the landscape beneath him and the emptiness above. The few population centers he can detect are all clustered around water systems—easy, almost too easy. He shifts his focus, looking for the perfect place to release his cargo for the first pass; upstream, remote, and undetectable, like always.
The large, unrecognizable ship that exits hyperspace just as he's about to start his descent is a shock, and his hunger makes him clumsy. He fumbles at the controls as the ship draws closer, and the angle of his dive suffers for it, internal alarms blaring unwelcome information about speed, hull integrity, and the other vessel's now active weapons.
He plunges steeply toward the planet, mind protesting that he hasn't had the training for this, but that doesn't matter now. All that matters is what he's there to do, what he's been programmed to do. If he can match his flying to his own erratic pulse, maybe he can avoid being hit for long enough to land. Failing that, if he can get close enough to the surface he'll be able to reintegrate the others so they can complete their task. His hand hovers over the beam controls, wondering if he's low enough that they might stand a chance, but in the instant before the enemy ship's weapon strikes, he decides that this fate is better for all of them.
His last thought is to be grateful that he's lost all memory of himself and thus cannot mourn what he is leaving behind.
"Colonel—" John breaks off, shocked by the raw anger he hears in his voice, the way it echoes in the enclosed space of the tent. He has to remind himself that, while Samantha Carter is his superior, she's not the same person who ordered him to ignore his friends' distress call back in Afghanistan. Still, incredulity—John doesn't want to call it betrayal—glues John's lungs together for a few tense seconds before he's able to grip the edge of Zelenka's worktable, letting the sharp edges dull his fury. Her early morning call-in from Atlantis with news that the Daedalus had reached the planet soon enough to prevent an outbreak had been very welcome—but her suggestion that they hold off until they're able to recover all the information on Michael's database is unacceptable. He ignores the startled look Radek is shooting him from across the table and clears his throat to start over, drawing on every persuasive weapon in his arsenal.
"Colonel Carter… Sam. We don't have that kind of time." John knows he's pushing his own boundaries, here, but one of the things he's picked up during his time in Atlantis is a healthy respect for the power of names.
"I respect the urgency, here, I really do—"
"This isn't like Elizabeth, Colonel—we know for a fact Teyla's still alive," John says, steeling himself against the guilt. "And there's no reason to believe we won't find intel just as valuable as this—or better—when we find her." He pauses, wondering if he should press that final button, searching for the way to do it that won't trash their rapport. "This is my team."
Zelenka steps toward him, brows furrowed as he keys his mic. "Perhaps—"
"All right," Carter's voice interrupts, her voice steady, her tone neutral. "I'd like you both to return to Atlantis and see what you and Dr. McKay can come up with. I want at least two recommendations with preliminary mission outlines on my desk in the morning. And John?"
"Yes," he says, staring fiercely at the roof of the tent, his voice thick.
"I do understand," she says simply. "Carter out."
John isn't sure he's ever been more grateful that he doesn't have her job.
When Rodney sees the familiar figure of John Sheppard through his open infirmary room door, he can't help letting out a huge sigh of frustration tinged with relief. The truth is, whether Sheppard had decided to drop by now or hours from now, Rodney wasn't going to make any more progress on the screenshots Zelenka had sent him. John pokes his head around the doorframe and lifts his eyebrows in a silent question.
"There's not enough to work with," Rodney tells him flatly, nodding at Dr. Zelenka as he comes up beside Sheppard.
"Are you sure you haven't overlooked anything?" Radek asks, coming inside to hover annoyingly at the side of the bed to look at the laptop screen.
Rodney's return glare would have been enough to send a lesser scientist running for cover.
"I am only asking what you would ask me, if our positions were reversed," Zelenka says, crossing his arms.
"If our positions were reversed, I'd be in my lab or at the Alpha site right now instead of being stuck here sucking jell-o cubes for days," Rodney grumbles, hitting backspace viciously ten times in a row. He doesn't add that Zelenka has done an excellent job on the data retrieval so far, because chances are, Radek knows this already, and Rodney's not above punishing someone else for his own unfortunate circumstances.
"Well, what do we have?" John asks, levering himself into the chair by the bed.
"A pretty good idea of which folder we want to access," Rodney says. "That, and a ticking clock. We need to do this, and we need to do it now."
"Let's take this one decision at a time, not that I don't agree with you," John says. "Which folder do we want to access?"
Rodney smiles. "Well, we already have a system in place to track hive ships, so we can scratch that off the list. Clearly we don't need to bother with the tally of hybrids, and Sam says Caldwell blew Michael's long range dart out of the sky, so there's a good chance that we'll be able to stretch out what little we know from the virus folder to last until after we find Teyla."
"Either that or Michael will alter his schedule," Zelenka mutters.
"Very motivating, thank you," Rodney says snidely before his next news pulls a grin up onto his face. "Long story short? There's data overlap between the schematic folder and this one, which we think lists the planets under Michael's control." He points at the laptop, looking up at John. "Next to every blueprint, there are coordinates. Those coordinates," Rodney says, tapping the screen with a broad finger, "are listed in the same order, planet by planet, in the first directory. Michael actually did us a favor by being so thorough; I wish I could be there when someone tells him that. It's a shame my ankle won't be healed by the time you find him—and you will find him, thanks to his stupidity and my brilliance."
"I'd much rather have schematics anyway," John shrugs, missing nonchalant by a mile.
"Oh, and that's not the best part," Rodney says, hitching himself up straighter in the bed. "The best part? Is the secondary designator symbols used on some of the blueprints."
"You think he will have some that stand for 'medical lab?'" Radek asks.
"Either that or locations of his makeshift jail cells, yeah."
"That's good enough for me," John says decisively "Radek—"
"Back to the Alpha site, yes," Zelenka says with a wide grin.
"Take Cadman," John suggests. "Just a precaution." Radek nods and exits the room hurriedly, and John turns back to McKay. Rodney recognizes the expression, knows where it comes from, and can even guess at how much John really hopes it'll work. "Rodney, good work," he says, his expression saying he knows the words sound lame, whether or not they're true.
"—But I can't come on the mission," Rodney finishes for him sourly. The way John's shoulders tense up—highlighting the fact that he'd been so relaxed the minute before—twinges Rodney's conscience in ways his knowing mistreatment of Radek hadn't. "Look, I know I can't come, I just… wanted to be there for Teyla," Rodney admits.
"I know, McKay," John says, crossing his arms and making a pained face. "We just need—"
"The best people, in the best shape," Rodney finishes for him again. "Yeah, I know. Just don't pick anyone stupid to take my place, all right? Get Dr. Abhijit Kanjula, he's quiet and can do what he's told but he's also not an idiot. Lt. Karas can spare him just this once, or, hell, take their whole team." John nods, looking like he's going to say something else, and Rodney knows he doesn't really want to, nor does Rodney want him to. He waves his hand dismissively.
"Get out of here; I have quality time to spend with my jell-o cubes and pain meds. And don't tell Keller that we've made a decision, I'd like to keep this laptop for a few more hours." As John heads out, Rodney doesn't turn to watch him go, knowing that if he does, it'll be all the more difficult not to call him back and demand to go on the mission, even if he has to stay in the Jumper.
Ronon's radio call wakes John from a mostly untroubled sleep; he'd had a few nightmares, but those were to be expected on the nights before important missions. This would be their first morning run since the collapse, and he had slept in. John tells himself he doesn't intend to make a habit of it—now isn't the time to make himself late worrying about being late in the future, anyway. Just to prove he still can, he gets ready in double time, and he's almost done when he hears a knock. Wrapping the towel around his freshly-washed neck, John reaches for the door control and heads back to the bathroom to finish his shave after nodding a welcome to Ronon.
"Used to be ready to go when I got here," Ronon says.
"Yeah, well, technically, I'm a few hundred years older than I used to be." John shoots a look around the open bathroom door before applying some product to his hair.
"Still vain, though," Ronon observes, walking up behind him, his broad grin reflected in John's mirror.
John decides to ignore this blatant attempt to rile him up. "Let's go," he says, adding as they head out the door, "Speaking of hair, what's it like to be able to move your head without all that hair weighing you down?"
"Weird," is the not altogether unexpected reply. As the two of them near the walkway that marks the official start of their run (a habit begun under the direction of Elizabeth, who had nearly been flattened coming around a corner one morning. She had promptly ordered that all running be confined to certain hallways—and not those with living quarters), Ronon turns to John and shakes his head, running his fingers through his now short hair as he does so.
"Feels good, now that I don't need it," he says, flashing a grin at John and taking off with a burst of speed that has John inwardly groaning, curiosity be damned. A few minutes later, when he's caught up and their pace evens out, John asks Ronon what he meant.
"The woman I loved died in front of me. Wraith shot up our building," Ronon explains. "I tried to get her to leave, but she wanted to stay and help people." His pace slows as he continues, the memories clearly painful. "After that, I didn't care about anything but hurting the Wraith. They made me a Runner, and all that was left of Sateda was dust and smoke—smelled for a year."
John's memory supplies the smell of smoke from Holland's downed helicopter, the scent memory still strong as it had been that day. He remembers coming back after his on-the-spot reprimand and lying fully clothed on his couch all night, dead tired and reeking of smoke and death. He'd felt he had deserved to smell it, like if he had showered too early, he would be assuming atonement.
John hears the helicopter blades of every bad mission he's ever flown in each footfall as he turns to Ronon and says, "I hear you, buddy." It's easy to imagine Ronon Dex internalizing and externalizing his guilt like that, but John can't picture himself lasting a year, much less seven.
The two of them run side by side in silence for a few minutes before Ronon says, "Think there's something going on with Jennifer and McKay?"
John takes a lot of pride from the fact that he doesn't stumble on hearing this question.
"Uh, no idea," John says lamely, putting on a burst of speed to give himself some time to think.
He and Carter had agreed that he should only share strategic details of their bleak future the older McKay had told him about. While letting Ronon and/or Rodney know how Jennifer's life turned out might technically count as strategic, it would be misleading at best, and downright dishonest at worst. If there was anything John had learned about alternate realities, both from his recent experience and from Stargate Command mission logs, it was how much things could change given even a small deviation.
By now, Ronon has caught up easily, and John can't seem to stop himself from saying something. Maybe it's the way older Rodney had waved away John's offer to leave things as they'd gone without him.
"Why, you interested?" he asks.
"Nah, he's too much work for me," Ronon says seriously, and before John can decide whether he should laugh or rush to clarify himself, Ronon tacks on a further shocker. "Before Lorne explained about your military, I always thought you two were—"
John doesn't hear the rest of Ronon's sentence; he's too busy waving Ronon off and saying 'Whoa' a couple of times to listen. The introspective part of his mind is busy calling him a hypocrite for protesting such an impossibility, however, complete with audio and video of his life in college, before he entered the Air Force. Mercifully, Ronon changes the subject for him without subjecting him to an agonizing loaded silence.
"Lorne also told me how your government recruits. Becoming a soldier is different on Sateda." John can hear the disgust in Ronon's voice loud and clear. "You have to prove you have honor."
"That's just America—there are many different countries and no two armies are the same. Besides, there's a lot about our armed forces that I disagree with," John says, quickly quashing an errant thought brought up by Ronon's previous statements.
"Been meaning to talk to you about that," Ronon says, surprising John for the second time in five minutes.
"The strategy is flawed. Your weapons? Even with a stockpile, if something happens to the Stargate or your ship, when you run out of ammunition, they're useless." Ronon slows down as they come up on their usual half-way stopping point, an out-of-the-way balcony that looks out on the control tower.
"That's true—though we've been stockpiling Wraith stunners as well as our own stuff," John says.
Ronon turns his back on the control tower to face John with a sober expression on his face. "How many people on each team know how to repair one?" John doesn't have an answer for this. "We should step up the hand-to-hand training—"
"Done, as soon as we get back," John decides on the spot. "I'll be honest, I've never been able to convince the big shots on Earth that fighting in the Pegasus galaxy isn't the same as it is there, but you're right, we should stop pretending that these things aren't an issue," John says. The truth is that he had considered all of this before—considered it and ultimately given up on trying to make substantial changes. Nearly every time he had made requests, put in for recommendations, or outright demanded that something be changed, he'd been told that he wasn't ranked high enough to affect such changes. As maddening as that had been, John had had to put his anger aside to get the job done here. However, now that Colonel Carter was the official commander, they might be able to make some progress.
"After we get Teyla back, I'll talk to Carter about this, maybe even point out that our mission to oppose Michael means this could become an issue sooner rather than later," John says.
"It's a start," Ronon says, starting to jog in place.
"Does that mean you know how to repair your blaster?" John asks, as the thought strikes.
"Yeah, but don't tell McKay. He keeps bugging me to make one," Ronon tells him gruffly, leaving John to wonder if there's any way he can convince Ronon it'd be a good idea anyway. He's wanted one of his own since the first time he was stunned by the thing.
John doesn't really know what prompts him to drop by the infirmary that evening to speak to McKay. He suspects it's the fact that, usually, if one of his team members is injured, their team is out of rotation, but John's spent the day preparing a mission with Ronon, Lorne's team, and Lt. Karas's team. They'd gone over a few scenarios (including how not to accidentally activate any Wraith tech they find lying around), and all in all, John feels they are solid, but it still doesn't feel right to head to his quarters without having talked with Rodney.
When he gets there, though, he almost turns to leave. Through the open door he can see that McKay is arguing with Dr. Keller about something, and by the derisive tone in Rodney's voice and the annoyed one in Keller's, John can tell it's not a discussion he wants to be in on. For the second time that day he remembers the way events unfolded in that alternate future, and for the first time he starts to wonder exactly how simply his absence could have created such huge differences. John slouches against the doorframe to listen, but somehow, although he's blocked from McKay's line of sight by Dr. Keller, Rodney knows he's there.
"Sheppard, get in here and tell her it's not unreasonable to want to get out of here early!"
"Doesn't using the word 'early' imply that it would be entirely reasonable to stay?" Jennifer points out. John knows better than to let on that he agrees with her logic right now; Rodney looks pale and a little manic, and John suspects it's time to refresh his meds.
"Come on! The Ancient bone repair machine—"
"That Ancient machine isn't magic, Rodney, and while your recovery time may have been halved, it's still called 'recovery' for a reason. You can't even leave the infirmary until you're proficient on crutches, and since you haven't asked for any yet and it's already nine PM, your request to be discharged tonight is denied," Jennifer says.
"Give me a half hour with them. I'm a genius, it can't be that hard to pick up," Rodney whines.
"Look, Rodney—I get that you don't want to be here. It's going to be noisy thanks to our preparations for the Hoffan plague victims, and these beds aren't the most comfortable to sleep on. There's nothing I can do about that," Jennifer says. "But if you need something overnight and you fall down trying to get it—"
"Exactly how much of a useless imbecile do you think I am?" Rodney snarls.
"Do I need to be here for this?" John asks, backing toward the door.
"Stay put, Sheppard, you're going to help me," Rodney orders him. "I'm sure you've spent years' worth of your reckless life on crutches."
"Maybe you can talk some sense into him," Keller says in exasperation as she walks out of the room. John can still hear her talking through the doorway as she continues a mini rant he's not quite sure he's meant to listen to. "I don't care if he does flips on these things in the next twenty minutes—he's staying the night here, and that's final."
"Can you believe this?" Rodney says incredulously. He's scooting himself to the edge of the bed, clearly preparing for an honest-to-goodness crutches lesson. While McKay continues his rant, John looks hopefully for McKay's IV line as an excuse to bow out but to no avail. Just as he's managed to persuade himself that Keller's not coming back with crutches, she does.
"Rodney, I know you're sick of being stuck in here, and you're right, I should have brought these to you earlier, but we've only used that device a few times, and never on such a complicated break. I needed to be sure you'd be okay," Jennifer says apologetically. "You're gonna want these for tomorrow anyway, when they bring Teyla back, right? And you won't want to have to walk all the way to your room tonight and then come all the way back here in the morning to see her." She's looking at Rodney with a sympathetic smile on her face that dissolves into one of apology when she glances at John. A minute later as she turns to leave, Jennifer stops in the doorway to say to John, "Thanks for your help, Colonel."
"We'll see if it still counts as 'help' when it's time for me to get out of here," John tells her, taking the crutches from where she'd leaned them against the bed. "Have you seriously never used crutches before?" he asks Rodney.
"I was never the sort of person who needed to prove anything by endangering my own life and breaking bones, if that's what you mean," Rodney sniffs. "They look easy enough, give them here."
"I'm just here to order you back to your bed when you overexert yourself," John says, sitting on the far edge of the bed after handing the crutches over. "Go for it."
As John had suspected, Rodney's bluster about the crutches had been more for complaints' sake than anything else. He's step-hopping in a wobbly line in no time, the exertion hardly enough to halt his litany of gripes and grumbles about everything from the noise in the infirmary to the writing quality in the stock of science journals he'd gotten in the last Daedalus delivery. This familiar cadence of superiority and frustration lulls John into a false sense of security, and he lets his mind drift toward the next day's activities, mentally running through the possibilities they might encounter.
"Hey, Sheppard! I could have just waltzed right out of here and you wouldn't have even noticed if I hadn't said anything!" Rodney accuses, and John looks up to see that Rodney has indeed crossed the room and is stopped right in front of the door, shooting a look of utter disgust at the crutch that's propping him upright.
"We're in another galaxy. We got here through a piece of technology created more than ten thousand years ago. Yet still, this is the best they can come up with?"
"They're a lot softer under the arms than they used to be," John offers.
"Given your marked lack of self-preservation, you'd be the one to know," McKay says dismissively. He slowly turns back toward where John's still sitting on the bed, and makes a face. "It would figure that I'd head off in the only direction without someplace to sit down," Rodney gripes, proficient enough with his crutches to gesture at the chair sitting in the opposite corner of the room. John wants to offer to move the chair closer to Rodney, but, though his sense of guilt is pretty strong as a result, he's got to admit that he missed how riled up McKay could get, now that their occasional gaming nights have been interrupted by all this crisis. Besides, it's only five feet to the bed, and Rodney's legendary in Atlantis for his ability to exaggerate his own physical lack of well-being.
Which is how John's guilt hits critical mass when, two feet and five minutes of rare silence later, Rodney starts to totter. He tries to right himself and twists one crutch in an awkward direction; Rodney loses his grip and the crutch falls sideways away from him. As John rushes over to help, he notes that Rodney's sweating quite a lot—it's obvious he hadn't quite been ready for such physical exertion after spending nearly a week in bed, even with the periodic physical therapy Keller had demanded of him over the past few days.
"Come on, buddy—only a few more feet," John coaxes, reaching around to hold Rodney up firmly by his waist. Rodney starts to protest, but his hold on the remaining crutch has weakened and it nearly slips away from him as well. John tightens his grip as Rodney sways dangerously, almost resting his weight on his injured ankle before remembering at the last minute and sagging into John.
"Okay—definitely more tired than I thought," Rodney says in a thready voice as John pauses to allow him to get a better grasp on the errant crutch.
"Don't worry, you're not gonna fall," John says as they near the bed. John tries to angle them out of the path of the fallen crutch, but it's difficult, and he basically has to help Rodney hop over it. McKay's forward momentum hitches for a second at this, and he makes a small, unhappy noise at the back of his throat. Looking down at Rodney does John no good, as his head is bowed and his body language could be radiating pain, embarrassment, and anger in equal parts, for all he can tell.
"Too late," Rodney says derisively, and it's amusement that John can hear dancing on the edges of the words, mystifying and just short of hurtful. He's pretty sure it's self-deprecation, not accusation, but the thing is, John does feel guilty, and at the same time he's sure that Rodney shouldn't. Belatedly, John realizes he has stopped moving and Rodney hasn't complained about it, though it's been longer than a minute and he can feel the weariness in the way Rodney's good leg is shaking with the effort to keep him standing. It's suddenly very important to John that Rodney not be left alone in his dim hospital room with a broken ankle and the self-condemnation to go with it.
"Look, Rodney," John starts to say, and they're only a foot away from the bed but McKay freezes up and tries to jerk away from him, as stiff as if he could pull his whole body under the protection of his cast.
"Never mind!" he says, as defensive as John's ever seen him, and if John hadn't kept his arm around Rodney, he would have ended up collapsing in a tumble of limbs and accusations. He's pretty sure Rodney wouldn't have seen it that way, however. "I'll be fine, Sheppard, just—" Rodney breaks off as he draws in on himself, his weight leaning toward the support of his single crutch in a way that John knows from experience won't last. He relaxes the iron grip he has on Rodney anyway and opts for vocal support, instead.
"The collapse wasn't your fault, Rodney—Michael used his knowledge of Atlantis and the way we think against us," John says as sincerely as he can manage. McKay sways a bit at this, his head coming up to fix him with an intense blue gaze that erodes into relief and a strange sort of sadness.
"That's not— Thank you," he says, almost as an aside. "Not that I'm completely convinced, but thank you for trying, anyway. It's more about, well. I'm sorry I got hurt. I should be going with you to—to look for… I hate being the weak link," Rodney says, straightening his back and lowering his gaze to the floor at the same time. "I'd hate to think my part in this was to bring you back and then hole up in Atlantis while you risk your life again."
John doesn't stop himself from resting his hand on Rodney's shoulder, and though he tells himself it's mostly to help McKay's balance, he knows he's lying. Rodney's a tactile person, and John is his friend, no matter how much he's always hated the idea of feeling obligated to touch, like it's some sort of social requirement. Rodney's warm under his hand, solid, for all that he's on the brink of toppling over, physically and emotionally. He wants to assure Rodney that coming on the mission injured would only place his life in more danger, but there's no comfort in that. The silence stretches out and John can't stand feeling like the one who's let down the person who, despite his irritating behavior sometimes, had rarely ever let John down.
"Rodney," he finally says.
"Hey," Rodney says, taking a graceless hop toward him that halves the already short distance between them, shifting the crutch to the side. "Hey, come here," he says, and raises a suddenly steady hand up to John's shoulder—no, his neck, and John's eyes move from following Rodney's hand to looking at his face. Hugs were okay—or, rather, he was okay with hugs in moderation, but those were supposed to be swift and bracing, not this sort of… deliberate, studied affection. But Rodney had never fit into any pre-set mold for anything else, so why does John expect him to now?
Except Rodney is leaning toward him, and the angle is all wrong, and John's shock makes him malleable as McKay's strong hand on his neck slides up and tugs down. He never sees this coming, he really doesn't, and the door isn't closed, and what is he supposed to do, here? Pulling away would mean McKay would fall, there was no doubt about that, and you couldn't run away from someone, let them fall down, and then scurry back to pick them up and run away again. But then, he wasn't— He didn't— Had Ronon been right?
Rodney's forehead touches his gently and John realizes his eyes are shut. His hand is trembling as he rests it on Rodney's other shoulder, willing himself not to squeeze too hard or shove the other man away as he finally realizes what Rodney is doing.
The two of them had never greeted each other in this way, though by now the action is as recognizable as breathing. John forgets not to tighten his grip as the emotions he'd tried to keep at a distance come flooding in along with a deep breath and a rush of warmth from every place he and Rodney have made contact. He feels his face relax, but he can't quite bring himself to open his eyes; he knows Rodney won't be holding back, and John doesn't think he's ready to confront his feelings about Teyla's abduction, not yet. Probably not ever.
"Just— Just find her, John," Rodney says, his warm breath moving against John's face in a way that is almost more intimate than what John had wanted to back away from. He doesn't know what to say. Everything that comes up in his mind sounds trite—or dangerous. 'We've never done this,' or 'You know I will.' Because there's a whole alternate universe where he didn't, where Rodney had been the hero, except his heroism had been to live a life driven and alone, just so John could be here now.
John's never been the 'I'll try' type. He settles on "No matter what," and opens his eyes warily. Rodney's eyes are shut, and he looks so tired that John moves one hand from Rodney's shoulder to his neck, mirroring McKay's gesture. He leaves his hand there for a long minute, drawing strength where he feels he should be offering it instead, before finally taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. Rodney opens his eyes again and John catches the barest hint of a guarded look before Rodney turns toward the bed.
"Thank you, Colonel," he says—and John doesn't have time to wonder at the strangeness of being addressed so formally, as he's too busy helping Rodney off with his shoe and being sleepily waved away. John looks back from the door to see Rodney sink onto the bed and arrange his pillow before he leaves, and it's only when John's walking into his own quarters that he realizes he has his hand resting casually against the place on his neck where Rodney's had been.
Rodney spends an indeterminate amount of time just sitting on the bed, unmoving, after John has left. He knows he came dangerously close to revealing himself—that really, had that been anyone other than John Sheppard, they would probably have figured him out the second Rodney touched them. The thing is, he's not sure whether John's lack of perception is a good or a bad thing. Rationally, he is aware that John wouldn't—can't want him, not and keep his job, and though Rodney knows he isn't the best at communicating his own emotions, he wouldn't be the last to observe that John hardly ever does.
It's just that John hadn't reacted in any kind of predictable way. While Rodney has made it his business to be aware of his own behavior when it comes to his feelings for John, he can't read John's at all.
In a moment of clarity, Rodney realizes he's made his own situation much worse, in more ways than one. Not only does he now have a memory of what it feels like to have John's hand on his shoulder, but now Rodney can also remember what it felt like to have his hands on John, in a gesture so close to a kiss that he'd almost done just that.
Rodney kind of wishes he had.
That morning after his run with Ronon, John forces himself to eat breakfast in the somewhat subdued mess hall, his skin prickling with an anticipation that he's fairly sure isn't all his own.
"Quiet day," Colonel Carter says, setting her tray down opposite him.
"Important day," John corrects her with a twist of his lips.
"That, too." They both look over when Dr. Biro sets her tray down at the other end of their table, stifling a yawn. It's clearly been a long night for the medical staff, but John hopes their preparations will save lives, thanks to Keller's quick thinking and the information they've gleaned from Michael's database. Carter looks to be thinking along the same lines; she nods a greeting to Dr. Biro and turns back to John.
"I sent Jennifer off to get some sleep at around 5:30 this morning," she tells him.
"I'm sure that went over well."
"It didn't," Carter says, smiling to acknowledge his sarcasm. "But she'll be grateful for it when your team gets back."
John doesn't say anything, but he can't prevent the small smile that crosses his own lips, the rush of pride he feels at her subtlety, or the sense of purpose that makes him sit just a little bit straighter. Colonel Carter had once told him she understood why John hadn't wanted her job, but one thing he hasn't ever told her is how well suited for it she is. He'd actually resented that, at first—her ability to draw him out, to handle him in just the right way. John hates knowing he's being handled, but what he hates even more is knowing that he's being ignored or judged falsely. He's never gotten that sense from Carter, even during times when he has disagreed with her decisions.
"Speaking of which, I want to take a jumper," John tells her. "It'll help if we need to get out of there quickly."
Carter nods. "You know, John, if there's anything else you need—"
"I really should get going," John says, hearing the apology in his voice and deciding to leave it there as he stands.
"Fair enough," Carter says, adding as she also gets up, "How's Rodney doing?"
"Well, you know Rodney." John feels his face tighten slightly and tries not to remember what it felt like to feel Rodney's skin against his. All of that has been filed away to an emotionally raw place that he's never been comfortable exploring, especially not in front of others, and definitely not today. "Keller says he's got maybe three weeks with the cast, if he can keep himself off of it," he says.
"So, over a month, then," she speculates with a rueful smile. "Well, don't let me keep you," Carter says with a look that's a bit more perceptive than he'd like.
The atmosphere in the locker room is somber when he gets there; Ronon is hovering at the back, his gun in hand as he talks quietly with one of the marines. John can't help but feel the weight of what they're about to do, and he knows he should say something, but he's been in this position from the other side before, and it never seemed to help. He knows that probably says more about the kind of person he is rather than the sort of pep talks he's received, but the simple truth is that he knows they'll all do their best no matter what.
It turns out that words don't really seem to be necessary at all; after securing his vest and his weapon, John turns to see the rest of the team waiting patiently behind him. He nods his approval and jerks his head toward the door, following them along the corridor to the jumper bay. The atmosphere in the control room mirrors that in the puddlejumper, and for once, John doesn't wait for a word from his commanding officer before he dials the gate. They exit the Stargate into the angled light of a summer afternoon that would have been beautiful but for the location of Michael's base, jutting out of the sandy shoreline with no safe approach except via cloaked jumper. John lands as close as he dares, and the five of them move through a side entrance quickly and efficiently.
John isn't sure whether to feel reassured or disturbed by the building's familiarity. He tells himself that Michael's simply made his mark on the architecture, imbuing it with the same brand of depressing inevitability John's seen displayed in his other structures. His sense of unease is back, the restless feeling that John's only just now recognizing the roots of. He feels as if he's already been here—in this situation, that is—and while the fact that Michael's come out on top twice before doesn't shake him, the knowledge of what happened in the awful alternative universe does. Despite the other Rodney's firm conviction that he is the key to everything, John isn't so sure, and it makes his chest ache with a tightness he can't shake when he thinks of how easily he might waste Rodney's life in two realities.
This building has fewer pipes in the ceiling than the structure that had collapsed on them, these replaced by bundles of the strange, pulsing 'wires' that mark the place as touched by Wraith technology. The light through the filmy windows is brassy, the dull sunlight shining flatly against the rough brown walls, and John wonders if his disquiet is actually a human thing—an Earth thing, a product of trying to identify the organic as something safe and being very, very wrong.
They haven't encountered anyone or anything, hybrid or otherwise, and John's senses pick up the slack, eyes and ears narrowing their focus. He, Ronon, and the three marines behind them pick up their pace, moving closer together almost intuitively as the corridor they're walking through narrows and bends, leading them to a doorway at the far end. The dread is thick in his throat, and John imagines it creeping through his arteries and slowing him down when he should be hurrying.
They're still a good fifteen feet from the door when Ronon unholsters his weapon and takes off towards it. John can't tell if his friend senses something in particular or just can't take the suspense any longer, but he nods at the rest of the team and they pick up their pace in order to follow. As he passes through the doorway, John hears Ronon calling his name in an anguished roar.
The room is bathed in a golden light that makes John irrationally angry. It feels wrong to think of anything in this place as beautiful, but the windows here are clear and unblemished, conduits for the columns of rich sunlight that look as out of place here as he feels. These thoughts pass through his mind quickly as flashes of emotion and color, dimmed by the driving need to push past the moldering boxes and rusting equipment and get to where Ronon is. John nearly skids past a misshapen, crusty iron table and suddenly he can taste his own heartbeat.
Ronon is crouched on the floor next to a still form cruelly bathed in a gentle ray of light from the nearby window. Ronon is growling into his radio, his voice raspy and incoherent to John's ears as he stares at Teyla. His gun digs into his hands, as useless as he is, and he watches helplessly as Ronon's searching hands cradle her head, press against her neck, trace the dried blood on her torso. All he can think of is that he's too late—too late for the baby, too late for Teyla.
"She's alive," Ronon says, but John's deep breath of relief feels hollow as he sweeps the room for some sign of an infant. He sees nothing promising.
"We need to call for—" John starts to say, making eye contact with his men and directing them silently towards the nearby open doorways to check for hostiles.
"Did that." Ronon turns back to Teyla and John realizes he's very competently searching for any signs of a spinal injury, for a reason that they shouldn't pick her up and sprint like hell for the exit. Their eyes meet, John nods, and without further hesitation, Ronon lifts Teyla into his arms, settles her against him with a care that illustrates a depth of feeling that's almost too private to watch, and sets off at a careful run.
Rodney doesn't ever plan on telling Jennifer Keller this, but he's very grateful that he got the chance to see Ronon rush Teyla into the infirmary. Her body had been terrifyingly limp in his arms, but Rodney had been able to see that she was definitely alive, and while her clothes had covered any injuries she might have had, the fact that there were none readily visible had been a relief. It had been mostly a fluke that Rodney had even been in a position to observe the two of them for the brief minute as they'd hurried through the main room of the infirmary. He'd had a mostly sleepless night due to the unusual level of activity outside his door, as the medical staff of Atlantis prepared for a possible influx of Hoffan virus patients transported on the Daedalus.
When no one had remembered to bring him breakfast in the morning, Rodney had stomped (as much as possible on his new crutches) out into the main room to go looking for someone to complain to. Finding no one of consequence, and being mostly ignored by people who seemed to be very good at looking far too busy to be bothered, Rodney had settled down at an empty triage station to wait for news about Teyla. His bed would have been much more comfortable, but Rodney didn't want to chance falling asleep and missing something important.
That had been four hours ago, and it's been two since he's seen Ronon, Keller, or much of anyone else, with the exception of John, who had come quietly into the room, spotted Rodney, and pulled up a stray chair beside him. They had shared what they knew about Teyla's condition, which hadn't been much, and then they'd both lapsed into a kind of melancholy silence that neither seemed willing to break.
John's sitting splayed out on the floor of the infirmary and Rodney's got his leg up on a lowered hospital tray by the time anyone comes out to find them. Rodney's starting to understand the philosophy behind elevating injuries, as the awful pressure he's been feeling all morning has eased a bit—not that he's going to confess any of that to Keller, or anything.
"John," Sam says, stopping short on her way from the trauma room. She sounds surprised. "I wondered where you were."
"Didn't—" John clears his throat like he's got to fight to get the words past everything he's not saying. "Didn't think I'd be much help in there," he says.
"Well?" Rodney asks impatiently.
Carter twists her hands in front of her in a gesture Rodney's become all too familiar with. "She's still unconscious, and preliminary tests show she was given a massive dose of a poisonous substance Dr. Keller hasn't been able to identify. It's doing something to her DNA; it looks like it was designed to force certain mutations—but," her tone lifts a little, "we were able to halt its progress, and her vital signs are back to normal now."
"So she's…" Rodney trails off, not sure whether he wants to say 'going to be all right,' just in case the answer isn't a resounding 'yes.'
"She lost a lot of blood from what seems to be a cesarean section wound—the…the baby— Teyla told us it's a boy, named Torren."
"Michael has the baby." John's voice is stark, the bleak question coming out as a statement instead. Sam's facial expression shows her struggling to find a way to soften or deflect Sheppard's words, but finally she drops her hands to her sides.
"It looks that way. At the risk of sounding trite, I'm sure Teyla's suffering from as much emotional trauma as physical. Jennifer has suggested that we limit her number of visitors, and I have to agree."
"What? We—" Rodney starts to say, surprised at how crushed he feels at this prospect. He's never been good with sick people, and especially not with sitting at bedsides, but this is Teyla.
"Ronon's in there," John interrupts him gruffly. "We'll live."
He wants to protest that he's known Teyla longer than Ronon or Sam or Jennifer, but John's stern look and the memory of Teyla's tightly closed fists as Ronon had carried her past him on their arrival keep him silent. He'd never thought patience was his strong suit until… well. He'd never thought himself capable of working at a community college, either, until John had let that slip.
Some things are just worth waiting for.
When Teyla comes back to consciousness, it is with less of a sense of relief than she had expected, her body thrumming with pain and unfamiliar lassitude. She spends a few dizzying moments trying to wake more fully as well as gain an idea of where she is—and whether she'll need to defend herself the instant she opens her eyes. The surface she's lying on is definitely softer than she's used to, but Michael is nothing if not clever, and the difference in sensation doesn't necessarily signify anything.
Thinking of Michael is a mistake. Every part of her aches with an agony that's more than physical; she feels empty but not hollow, as if her body is falling in on itself with the knowledge that someone else has laid claim to her son, child of her flesh and blood, who should be hers, no one else's. Teyla forces her mind back to the task of waking, folding away her anger to be dealt with when she has the strength. The light she can sense through her eyelids has a warmer cast than that on a hive ship, and as she becomes more attuned to her surroundings, she catches a rhythmic tapping sound from nearby.
Slowly, Teyla turns toward the sound and opens her eyes. There is a man seated on a chair beside the bed, bent over an object on his lap. As her vision clears she sees that it's Rodney; she would recognize the slope of his shoulders and the way he is holding his head even if she hadn't seen his face. He is sitting at an angle in one chair with his left leg propped up on another, typing on his laptop computer. When she looks more closely at his outstretched leg, she sees a swollen-looking brown sock sticking out of his pant leg and over the chair's edge. It looks familiar, and as she's trying to place it, she hears the cadence of Rodney's fingers slow, and then stop.
"Teyla?" His voice is familiar and warm, shaking slightly, and she feels herself relax into the strange looseness that she'd noted when she first woke. She moves her hand, meaning to offer a gesture of greeting, but something is offering resistance, and Teyla looks down to see a clear tube taped to the back of it. Drugs for her injuries, she realizes, and moves her hand back to where it was.
In her peripheral vision, she can see Rodney's arms moving, his torso turning as he sets his laptop down and reaches for an item out of her line of sight. Teyla's eyes are drawn back to the sock, though. Kiena made it, a year—no, two years ago, for Carson and his patients, as a gift of thanks. It is not something she would ever have imagined Rodney McKay wearing. His toes flex inside the sock as he slides to his feet, and she hears Rodney hiss out a breath, careful not to rest his weight on that foot. On looking up, Teyla sees that he's supporting himself with two lengths of metal that she thinks are called crutches. She looks up at his face; Rodney is staring at her with a kind of happy confusion, as though he isn't quite sure what to do with her.
"Are you— Well, obviously not, but, I mean…"
Teyla's lips turn up weakly at this, though that attempt at a smile turns to a grimace when she swallows involuntarily, her dry throat feeling sore and bruised.
"Right, right," Rodney says, as though she had voiced her need aloud. "Just let me…" His movements are a bit awkward, Teyla notes. She wonders how long ago he was injured. "I can't find a straw, but I can call for Dr. Keller if you want," Rodney says as he rests his weight heavily on the raised rail of her bed and proffers a half-filled cup of water.
"I would—" Teyla stops speaking to reach for the cup and sip, the smooth metal slippery against her fingers. "I would like that, thank you."
"Okay," Rodney says, taking the empty cup after a minute and making a one-handed gesture offering more. Teyla shakes her head. He sets the cup down to tap on his radio, letting the doctor know that she is awake.
"It is good to see you, Rodney."
He flushes slightly. "We weren't about to leave you— I mean, well. It's good to see you, too. Really good," Rodney says, as earnest as she's ever seen him. They share a tentative smile before backs away suddenly, pulling away from his awkward lean over her bed to sit back down. He blinks at her for a long moment and then points toward the half-closed door with his thumb.
"Doctor Keller told me she's wrapping up a sprained wrist," he says. "Wants you to stay still until she gets here—five minutes, maybe ten, she said."
Teyla rests her head against the soft pillow behind her. "I do not think I will pass out again so quickly," she says. "Did the person she's tending to hurt themselves at the same time as you?" Teyla asks, turning her head rather than lifting it to look at him.
"No—all of us have been released now," Rodney says, as though she would know what he means by this. A second later, he snaps his fingers and leans forward. "That's right," he mutters, then louder, "No one had a chance to tell you, did they? You wouldn't believe what we had to go through to find you," Rodney says, gesturing almost proudly at his leg.
He starts to tell her something about a solar flare and John, his words coming fast and careless, hard to follow. Teyla struggles to focus on what he's saying, and her eyes widen when he explains about an alternate timeline, and how the McKay there had worked to bring John back and change everything that had happened. She is shocked by the casual attitude he has adopted, the excitement that keeps him from noticing her distress. Then Rodney is describing falling rock and dust, and how uncomfortable and painful it had been to be trapped in the debris of a fallen building. Against her will, her mind conjures up images of restraints, her child being born and then taken away, the icy chill of poison coursing through her veins. Teyla struggles against the need to object, to point out the nature of true suffering—the terrifying alterations Michael has wrought on his hybrids, on her people, on Kanaan.
Yet, here is Rodney, hands moving wildly as he talks about the events he and the others had dealt with since the dart had taken Teyla from Lorne. All of it while completely missing the fact that what he's telling her is a story about how they'd struggled to find her—not how they had struggled without her. She had hoped that the members of the expedition here—all of them—might have changed a bit, recognized the need for someone to speak as a voice for conscience, but she'd been wrong. How many people from how many worlds had been affected by what they had done?
Teyla feels suddenly alone, as though she is not in sync with the people around her. She has no wish to bargain for her own life or Torren's by destroying others' lives in their stead. She knows what she needs to do, how to protect that precious child, and if she must draw on her own strength to do it, then so be it. Teyla turns her head to smile at Rodney, knowing he won't be able to see the resignation in her eyes, not when he's so caught up in telling her everything she doesn't want to hear.
John's visiting with Teyla when Ronon comes over to sit on the bed across from Rodney, his short, thick hair jutting out from his head randomly in ways that would look incredibly stupid on anyone else. It looks like Ronon turned his head upside down and scrubbed his hands through his hair in frustration, and the look on his face tells Rodney he might not be wrong about that.
"Thank you," Rodney thinks to say, twisting at the blanket lying crossways beneath him with a hidden hand. It seems like both the most insufficient and heartfelt thing he can think to say right now in gratitude for finding their teammate.
"Yeah," Ronon rumbles in a low voice.
"I um… told her about your hair," Rodney says, apropos of nothing. "When she woke up, I mean. Before. I told her how it happened," he fumbles on, but Ronon doesn't seem interested (big surprise there), and Rodney's preoccupied with trying to think of a way to express his worries about Teyla without sounding like he doesn't realize she's just been rescued from a literally inhuman monster.
After he'd told her about their failed rescue mission, Teyla had seemed to withdraw into herself, greeting Dr. Keller formally and thanking Rodney for understanding that she needed some time alone. She'd looked so sad and… something, resting on her pillows and looking steadfastly at the wall as he'd left—it had almost made Rodney's chest hurt.
The soft sound of a door closing makes him look up. John looks a bit lost, and Rodney wonders for a few moments if he is projecting until Ronon stands up and grips Sheppard's shoulder without speaking, nodding gravely at Rodney before walking away. With a sharp intake of breath, Rodney realizes that Ronon's casual, steady presence for those few minutes had been his shared consolation, that Ronon's just done the same for John, but in a different way.
"We'll—" Rodney stops, swallows, and corrects himself, not wanting to speak more than himself even though he's completely certain that Ronon will help in any way he can. "I'll help you find him." He can't bring himself to say 'them,' because anything that lumps Teyla's infant son with Michael feels awful and unjust.
"Zelenka thinks the program Michael used to purge the trapped drive might not have been thorough enough to prevent us from salvaging a few things," Rodney says quickly. "And Lorne requested to head the team to search the building you were in for similar technology. Well, you knew that, of course." He loses the frenetic pace he's been speaking in for a few seconds before circling his hand a few times and starting again. "Anyway, Lorne wanted to stay all night but Sam told them to come back—he called in while you were with Teyla. Sam's heard from Caldwell, too: it looks like no one's going to get sick at the planet, so score another one for our side, I guess. Oh, and I've got all the schematics laid out in our database, and there's a whole team—"
"McKay," John interrupts, but Rodney shakes his head, changes tacks.
"I should have expected— I mean, he took her baby, of course she's going to be…" Rodney had been punctuating each sentence with accompanying gestures, but now he lets his hands fall limply onto his lap. "I just…" he looks over at John, who is still standing at the edge of the bed where Ronon had greeted him. "I thought everything would be okay, you know?" he asks rhetorically.
"Yeah," John says, falling silent for a few minutes before taking a deep breath and uncrossing his arms. "You need help getting back to your room?" he offers, and Rodney misses the meaning of John's accompanying hand movement, he's so surprised.
"Um, yes?" he blurts out, trying not to sound overeager, but John points over his shoulder again and asks which room, and Rodney's temporary eagerness plummets along with his stomach. Of course Sheppard hadn't been offering to… to walk him home, or anything. John responds to Rodney's momentary confusion with his own, before the source of that confusion registers.
"Oh, you meant—"
"Keller discharged me while you were gone—I'm actually going to head back to—"
They speak at the same time, their voices bending together as Rodney's gets a little shrill and John's tone drops dramatically. For a minute they just sort of stare as if waiting for the other to start speaking again, but in lieu of more conversation, John retrieves Rodney's crutches and holds them out awkwardly.
It occurs to Rodney that perhaps his goading of the night shift nurse for a stronger dose of painkiller fifteen minutes ago might have netted unfortunate results. He wants to think back to what her name was, but he's feeling very warm with John's gaze on him, and it's hard to concentrate. He really hopes nothing's showing on his face, even though he's got a decent amount of plausible deniability right now.
"Thank you," Rodney says, exerting as much control over his tone as he can. It still comes out kind of low-pitched, though John appears to take this as a signal of Rodney's tiredness. Rodney focuses on the floor in front of him as he swings through each step of his crutches, and it's the change of floor design (rather than the distance traveled) that signals that their destination isn't Rodney's old infirmary room after all. He's glad for more than just the company—hospital beds are hell on his back.
"Oh!" he says, trying not to sound pathetically grateful. "Ah… thank you, really."
"More of an escort than anything else," John hedges. "Call it self-defense—I don't feel like hearing about your evening spent freezing on the floor in the hallway after going by yourself."
Instead of being offended (or pointing out that nothing in Atlantis is ever freezing unless someone's done something to deserve it), Rodney simply sniffs and looks at the scattered doorways along the route to the transporter.
"You do know I can hack my way into pretty much any room, don't you?"
"Sure, but you have to use tools," John points out, flaunting his superior ATA gene. Rodney stews over this until they're just down the hall from his quarters. His coordination has been sliding downhill for ten minutes; finally, one of the rubber caps on his crutch catches on an uneven section of the tiled floor and he stumbles, reflexively setting his left foot down flat on the floor.
"Shit, McKay!" John curses, reaching out to slide a hand under Rodney's left knee to support him as he readjusts his crutches.
"Shit," Rodney echoes, riding the pain for a minute until it subsides enough so he can think properly. "Why did I do that?" he hisses at himself.
"Reflexes," John says. "C'mon, we're almost there anyway."
Rodney's right elbow hurts like hell from where he'd half-landed against the wall, and when he shuts his eyes he imagines he can still feel John's hand on his arm, the way it had slid strongly along the underside, steadying him. It's a different kind of pain from the one in his ankle—bittersweet—and Rodney suspects that no medication he could take right now would cause either to subside any more swiftly than they will on their own. He's pretty sure that he's doing a shit job hiding the effect of any of it in his eyes, so he keeps them shut for the most part, until the clutter just past the door of his quarters necessitates the act of looking where he's going.
He doesn't realize he's been shutting out most of his other senses as well until the progression of John's hands on him changes from helpful support to friendly concern, one sliding along his bicep in a shifting grip as John moves to stand in front of him, his other hand shaking Rodney's shoulder gently. It's a relatively huge move for Sheppard, and Rodney's a little overwhelmed by it, especially now, when he's feeling disjointed and exposed. He lets out a breath, hoping that'll be enough of a signal for John to step away, to stop being the friend and slide back into the role of the team leader, the person Rodney can most easily remind himself he can't have. Unfortunately, John seems to take this as a sign of another sort of distress.
"McKay. Buddy, we found her," John says, his voice completely unprotected for once, breaking slightly on the word 'found.' Rodney's hands are white-knuckled in their grip on his crutches; he's trying to channel all of his responses to Sheppard into them, but the effort of keeping himself upright and sane all at once is getting to be too much. "Rodney," John is saying now, and he's standing close enough that Rodney can feel his proximity even with his eyes shut; this is too much like before and Rodney's far less prepared for it, this time. As he silently begs Sheppard to turn away, John squeezes his shoulder and lets go, thank God, thank God—but his hand comes back down hesitantly on the join between Rodney's shoulder and neck, and without meaning to, Rodney makes a soft sound.
"Rodney—you have to calm down, okay? You—" And now it's John making a sound, of frustration maybe. Rodney can feel his pulse racing, knows John can as well, and then John presses his fingers against the nape of his neck, tipping Rodney's head forward and he wants to laugh, cry, something, because it's his own fault that John thinks this is what he needs, and he knows how much this is costing Sheppard, and it's simultaneously the best and worst thing John can do right now.
Rodney feels trapped by circumstance. All he can do is stand there and accept John's gesture in the spirit in which it's being given; warm touches on his arm, his neck, his forehead, warm breath on his skin, and all of a sudden Rodney's resolve falters in the face of everything. He's exhausted, he's hurting, and he wants, has wanted for years, and John is right there, forehead resting warmly against his.
Before he can change his mind, he settles most of his weight onto his right leg and lets go of his left crutch, leaving it resting lightly against him. Rodney's head buzzes with a thousand objections too distant to hear as he reaches up with his freed hand and grips John's collar tightly, pulling his head slightly to the side as a result. Rodney's off-balance, but that's okay because John's hands are there, and maybe Sheppard thinks Rodney's tired, or maybe he really doesn't ever see this coming, but he's not moving away. Rodney tugs just slightly on the material in his hand as he angles his head, the movement pulling John to him rather than him pressing into John.
Sheppard's mouth has been startled into softness like the rest of him, that brief, sweet instant before closing up and shutting off, and Rodney can't help brushing his lips warmly against John's, really kissing him instead of dropping the quick, desperate peck he'd envisioned. He thinks the friction is going to kill him, but it's the brief, fractional nudge into it that John makes a second before stumbling back that stops his heart.
John's fingers close around Rodney's wrist to drag them off and away, but his ingrained need to protect others thankfully remains intact. Sheppard locks his elbow and keeps his arm outstretched, turning his back to Rodney while seeming to give him the chance to regain his balance. John's grip is bruising, the line of his shoulders tight and forbidding. The impulsive, reckless attitude Rodney just gave in to rears its head again, and he balances on one foot for a dangerous second while stuffing his remaining crutch under his arm. Then he wrenches his hand away from John's (that's definitely going to bruise—not quite the memento Rodney wanted, but just about what he should have expected, really) and hops over to his bed in five wobbly but fierce movements.
The room is silent except for the sounds of harsh breathing. As he slides onto the bed in a controlled collapse, Rodney wishes he had a hope in hell of calming down, just so he could find out whether John's own breaths are contributing to the ambiance. Sheppard is still turned away, but he's also not leaving, which to Rodney means John's probably about to tell him off. Given the other man's solid determination to avoid discussions that have anything at all to do with feelings, Rodney supposes he ought to feel flattered. Instead, he carefully balances his sole remaining crutch on its end, ramrod straight—with military precision, he thinks to himself viciously—and shoves it over, the angle perfect for a loud, hollow clatter against the metal floor. Then he waits.
Gratifyingly, John jumps and turns around. "What the hell, McKay," he says in a hoarse, angry snarl.
"That was on purpose," Rodney says flatly. John Sheppard lives his life like consequences don't matter to him, and Rodney's sick of being left behind while John goes off to blow himself up or suffocate to death, all with Rodney's help, no less. Just once, he'd like to be the nonchalant one, the one who handwaves the 'risk' part of a 'risk vs. reward' situation.
Besides, he had liked his reward, even if John hadn't… or had he?
Rodney briefly considers pointing out John's momentary response, or the way he hadn't shoved Rodney away from him before anything had happened at all, but he realizes he wants to keep those memories they way they are, without the shouting match and defensive posturing that would inevitably follow. John's started toward the door—predictable, really, that the man who would voluntarily fly bombs into the atmosphere or onto a hive ship would turn tail and run the second someone forces him to face up to something emotionally charged—and now Rodney's really angry, because he's just fucked up, and the best friend he's ever had is about to leave and probably never come near him again. The thing is, Rodney's tired of rationalizing every single touch, sick of cataloguing all the pros and cons that prevent him from saying John's name except for times when he can blame it on stress. He's always stressed, he realizes, and the thing about loving someone is that you want to be able to feel comfortable around them. You don't want to hide your feelings, and Rodney decides he's not going to, not anymore.
"I'm in love with you," Rodney says. He lifts his chin defiantly, not sure whether he wishes John hadn't had his back turned when he said it or not. His heart is racing in a way that's probably very unhealthy, and the adrenaline rush is so heady Rodney thinks he finally understands what John loves so much about flying.
For his part, John hasn't moved, though Sheppard's hand is down near the bottom of the door crystal. He'd already tried to open the door, then, and Rodney's special security code that disables the controls after a certain hour is the only thing that made Rodney's declaration possible.
"Open the door, McKay," John says, and it sounds like he's speaking through clenched teeth. It's a chilling effect, and if Rodney hadn't already been furiously angry at himself and his whole stupid choice of falling for John in the first place, he would have obeyed instantly just to get himself out of the whole situation. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
"Look, I— I'm in love with you," Rodney repeats, a bit miffed at himself at his slight hesitation, but somehow saying 'I love you' is much more intimate than 'in love,' and given John's cold response, he's not anxious to lay any more of himself out than he already has. "I'm not asking for anything, and nothing has to change." He thinks he hears John give a snort at this, but any reaction at all is probably wishful thinking. Besides, he's only going to get one chance for this crash and burn, and he wants to make at least one thing clear. "It's not like anything has changed. And—"
John's hand reaches up towards his radio after another failed attempt to activate the door.
"Wait! Here," Rodney says, straining to reach the crystal for the nightstand, whose activation unlocks Rodney's safeguards. "It's unlocked now, okay? You can leave and get started on never talking to me anymore," he adds without thinking.
"How long?" John asks without turning around, the door still shut in front of him, hand paused over the door crystal.
"A long time," Rodney says simply. He wonders if John expected him to say something like 'long enough,' but he won't, because he's made his peace with that. One is a prime number, the number of digits in Pi is infinite, Rodney McKay loves John Sheppard. "Look, John," Rodney says, and Sheppard flinches at the name. It's barely perceptible, but Rodney knows him like he knows a Naquadah reactor, and he sees the reaction, even though John's still turned away from him. He orders himself not to take it personally. "I'm tired, I'm in pain, and I'm upset, yes. I'm not drugged, delirious, or kidding. I haven't let it affect anything up till now, have I?" he asks, knowing the question is unfair when John's being asked to answer it without the benefit of reexamining the last four years for clues. When Sheppard still doesn't say anything, Rodney adds in a quiet voice, "And I won't."
"Right," John says, sounding angry again. He activates the door and leaves quickly without looking back, leaving Rodney to alternate between feeling a strange kind of relief and an incredible sense of loss as he stares at the shut door.
"Major Lorne to Colonel Sheppard. Colonel Sheppard?"
John spends a few frustrating seconds fumbling for his radio sleepily before he's able to orient the thing correctly and activate it.
"Sheppard here," he says, wanting to ask the time. He decides to fumble for his watch, instead. It's 6:00 AM, and he's slept in by half an hour, which means Ronon has most likely gone on their run. Shit.
"Sir, this is a long-shot, but: you didn't by any chance decide to lock up all the weapons on Atlantis sometime in the middle of the night, did you?" Lorne asks. John's sure Lorne is wearing a straight face despite the humor and hint of concern coloring his tone.
Briefly, John considers the idea that Atlantis herself might have done it in an attempt to protect Rodney from some faulty interpretation of John's thought processes the night before. He discards this possibility immediately; he hadn't wanted to hurt McKay, he'd just been angry and feeling trapped in more ways than one. The memory these thoughts call up cause his lips to tingle a bit in remembrance, and John tightens the muscles of his mouth in frustration. Then he remembers that Lorne is still waiting for a response.
"I'll be right down," John says, wondering what technical glitch has caused the problem this time. As he gets dressed, the collar of his slightly too small t-shirt catches on his lower lip, and he's right back at McKay.
When he'd finally settled down enough to sleep the night before, he'd decided not to be angry with McKay. He knows the man well enough to recognize when he's being lied to, and well… that's the whole thing right there, really. In the revealing light of day, however, he doesn't feel so forgiving. Rodney should have known better than to do what he'd done, even if he had been tired and—
John pauses in the act of tying his shoes. He had been thinking the word 'desperate,' but he can see McKay's face as clearly now as he'd seen it then. He wasn't desperate at all; first he'd been a bit spiteful, then resigned, maybe even a little sad. The worst part of it all was how far from his usual animated self McKay had been, before John left—with the exception of the kiss, of course. The kiss John is not going to think about anymore, thank you.
Unfortunately, it's clear that Lorne hadn't been kidding at all when he'd said that all of Atlantis's weapons were under Atlantis' version of lock and key. The door to the main armory is locked and completely unresponsive, and the major has already sent men to confirm that the three ancillary weapons rooms are similarly inaccessible. The idea of blowing the door to their weapons cache with C4 is as ridiculous as the idea that they can't get into it in the first place, so John asks Lorne to tell him everything he knows.
"My team packed our equipment away when we got back last night; the door responded as normal with no difficulty. We haven't had cause in the past to set a guard there, considering it's keyed to military personnel and senior staff only, but—"
"At ease, Major, I'm not blaming you for this," John assures Lorne. "From what you've told me it sounds like all four are out of commission, and that makes this a technical problem, not a logistical problem." Which means that what John really needs to do right now is call McKay, something he has no intention of doing. "Go on," he prompts the other man, hoping some detail will present itself that will offer more options.
"Not much more to tell, sir," is the disappointing reply. "My next instinct is to call up one of the scientists and find out if this is going to be a persistent issue or a one-time glitch." John nods, because Lorne's right, whether or not John likes that fact.
"Radio Dr. Zelenka," he directs, looking away to run his hand over the smooth seam of the implacable door when Lorne shoots him a look of friendly surprise. "Dr. Mckay," John says, and, shit, he never calls Rodney that, and it sounds like an admission of something, "—is still on light duty, and Radek can't leave for the Alpha Site until his escorts are armed anyway."
"Yes, sir," Major Lorne says, and taps his radio on to set that plan in motion. After calling up Colonel Carter and informing her of the situation, John spends a few fruitless minutes while they wait trying to persuade the city that he should really be let into the armory. The door is as responsive to his thoughts as one on Earth would be. When he arrives, Dr. Zelenka is initially as baffled as they are; he hooks up his ever-present tablet computer to the door's interface and starts muttering in Czech. John thinks he recognizes some of the phrases from their time on the Alpha site, which is not the least bit encouraging.
"Ah," Radek says after a few minutes, squinting a bit at his screen. "Overactive security protocol." He looks over at John and Lorne, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose before continuing. "I am not certain, but Rodney was working on the quarantine programming before his injury—perhaps this is result of stopping before he was finished." Zelenka shrugs, and John suspects his next statement will be to suggest they talk to Rodney about it.
"Is there anything you can do? I'd rather not bother McKay," John says as sincerely as he can, which isn't that difficult, since it's true.
The scientist mumbles something that sounds an awful lot like "Rodney does not need protecting," but John feigns deafness as Radek adjusts some crystals in the door panel. It's obvious that this isn't going to do much, however, and eventually, Radek pulls his interface cable free and shakes his head.
"From here? No," Zelenka says, answering John's question. "But I will see what I can manage myself before calling him."
"Thanks, doc," Major Lorne says with a smile, and John breathes a sigh of relief. With Radek as his go-between and Lorne to report back with any results, John won't look like he is avoiding Rodney at all.
"I will check all systems for this same error," Radek tells them. "Would I be correct to assume that without access to the armory there will be no off-world travel?" John thinks for a moment, knowing instantly what Zelenka is referring to—the work at the Alpha Site.
"We had a team of three patrolling overnight," he says, picturing the gear they would have been wearing. "Add that to the backups in the shooting range and anyone who might have stowed their weapons in the locker room instead of the—"
Lorne's tactful cough tells him how likely it is that John's men wouldn't have followed that protocol.
"Most won't be using their own weapons, maybe, but there will be enough for escort and defense," he says, "provided the Wraith don't show up." The three of them share a look before Zelenka excuses himself.
"Major, you and your team any good with Wraith stunners?" John asks on a whim, remembering his conversation with Ronon.
"Yes sir—why do you ask?"
"When you're done doing a quick inventory of what we do have access to, pass off the plans for allocating them for patrol to Major Warren and take your team to Michael's base. We need to do a sweep to see if there's similar tech there to what we used to find Teyla. Take some stunners with you for weapons support." Lorne nods and heads off to get started, and John shakes his head for a moment. He doesn't often think about the fact that he lives on a floating spaceship in constant danger of attack from alien vampires, but something tells him that today is going to be one of those days.
With the immediate crisis being taken care of, John heads to the mess hall for a quick breakfast. Seeing Ronon turns out to be anticlimactic. They pass each other in the food line; Ronon has two trays, one filled with selections of soft bread and fruit, the other with everything. John assumes by this that he's planning to eat his breakfast with Teyla, and he tells Ronon to pass along a greeting to her.
"I will," he says, picking up the two trays as though they were paper plates and moving to the drink station. "Where were you?" Ronon doesn't have to elaborate.
"There's a bug in the system somewhere and we can't access any of the armories," John says truthfully, filling up his glass in order to avoid meeting Ronon's eyes.
"Looks like you've got your example for SG Command," Ronon says when John does look up. He hefts his trays and heads for the door without waiting for John's answer. John considers asking Ronon if he had anything to do with the lockdown, but then reminds himself that if this had been the case, Ronon would have been up front about it. John finishes filling his plate and finds a table in the corner so he can sit by himself. It's highly unlikely that McKay will show up to breakfast on crutches anyway, but John's not taking any chances.
Her reflexes are already much improved, Teyla notes, pleased. She picks up the sound of footsteps outside her door in enough time to sit back down on the bed and draw the blanket over her lap. One of her pillows has fallen, but she had tried to crouch the day before when she was testing her boundaries, and that pain isn't worth risking for just a pillow.
"Brought you breakfast," Ronon says in response to her look of surprise. "Keller says you can have real food."
"That is a welcome relief, Ronon. Thank you," Teyla says with real warmth. Her melancholy is starting to lift now that she's able to walk. He helps her settle comfortably with the food before snagging the extra chair for his own tray and starting into his breakfast. Teyla takes a few minutes to enjoy her own—the time she spent with Michael had included many trials she had to endure, one of the most frustrating of which had been the food. It had been bad enough on its own; Teyla didn't want to remind herself that sustaining one's own life as well as a child's, that simply eating, could feel like a sign of cooperation.
"So," Ronon says. He takes a huge bite of the sandwich he's made out of egg and toasted bread and waits. Teyla wonders if she is meant to know what Ronon is waiting for—if she has perhaps forgotten or is unaware of a conversation that he is continuing, however obscurely.
Teyla sets down her fork and raises an expectant eyebrow.
"Michael has your son," he clarifies. She closes her eyes, nods, and waits. Teyla knows what he is asking, but she wants him to be specific, so that she doesn't have to be. "What are you going to do?"
She takes a deep breath and looks directly into his eyes. "Kill him, and take him back."
Ronon holds her gaze, his face completely serious as he says, "Good. I'll help." Without looking down at his plate, he picks up his egg and bread sandwich and takes a huge bite. They sit in silence for a few minutes, and Teyla takes the opportunity to calm herself. Anger and grief will do her no good right now, as hard as it is to quiet them.
"The armory doors won't open for anyone," Ronon says, apparently satisfied and therefore finished with the result of their first conversation.
Teyla looks over. "No one? Even John?" He shakes his head.
"Only about ten people in the city are armed." His eyes tell her what he thinks of that.
"There will be ample warning of an attack," Teyla points out. "And there are many ways to fight."
"Some better than others," Ronon says with a grunt. "They should be more worried," he adds seriously. Teyla ponders this, comparing the behavior she has recently observed with her knowledge of the Lanteans' behavior in the past.
"I believe this focus only on a specific kind of weaponry is a weakness," she says, setting her tray aside. "This is the city of the Ancestors, and yet our primary weapons are Earth made, reliant on ammunition."
"Exactly what I told him. The city should be better protected," Ronon agrees. "We're at war."
"Wars are not solely fought with weapons," Teyla adds. "A successful battle is often won by using many varied strategies." It's important to her that Ronon understand her way of thinking, here, but she can see that he is more concerned with fighting a war than winning one.
"Haven't found anything but replicators I can't kill with this." Ronon's face lights up fiercely as he cradles his gun in one hand.
"And when it is taken from you?" she can't help but ask.
"Then I kill them and take it back." His smile turns feral.
The outside air tastes fresh—too fresh, Michael thinks as he walks swiftly through the underground hallway. He misses the permanence of a hive, how he can jump into hyperspace at a moment's notice and leave none of his work behind. He spends too much of his time waiting, lately.
There's only one living being in his command room, and Michael registers his presence impassively. Predictable.
"You want to know how the child is," Michael says to Kanaan, making it a statement rather than a question.
There is a long pause. "What I want—"
"Healthy." Michael cuts off the tentative response mid-sentence and holds out his hand, palm up, for the report Kanaan is holding. After a moment's hesitation (Too long, Michael thinks to himself. He'll have to adjust the dose), Kanaan places the slick paper in his hand and steps back into the shadows.
"Well done," Michael murmurs to himself, looking up at the pulsing ceiling where it is crisscrossed with living wires. The loss of the dart is a minor inconvenience; that it is missing in the first place is the greater, more welcome news. "Healthy," he repeats, looking back down at the report.
His plan is working.
John almost makes it to suppertime before Radek tells on him.
"Colonel, Zelenka just called me about your armory problem," Rodney's voice says coldly on his radio, emphasizing Radek's name. John's taken so much by surprise that he stumbles on his way into the control room. He ignores Chuck's look of confusion as he turns around and heads for a nearby balcony. There is no way he is having this conversation in public.
"Are you saying I should always call the head of a department when I have an issue?" John says, wishing he could point out that for McKay, everything is work related in some way, shape, or form.
"Cute," Rodney says, and John stifles back a cough. There isn't anything different in McKay's tone, but… "Except for the part where your guys called you, so it's clearly important enough for senior staff. Seriously, Sheppard, this wasn't world-shaking information, here."
John knows McKay's not referring to the armory anymore, and for the first time ever, it bothers him that he's able to pick up on that. He also isn't so sure Rodney's right.
"Not everything's about you, McKay," John counters. "Radek wasn't going to be able to leave for the Alpha Site without the armory up and running anyway."
"So send Ronon with him," Rodney says. "Look, believe me when I tell you that I'd rather not be having this conversation," he adds, "but you need to tell me if you can't work with me. Atlantis—"
"I'm fine," John says, teeth clenched. "Jesus, McKay, give me a day, will you?"
"Oh," Rodney says a minute later in a subdued voice. "Oh, right, right. Sorry. I forget that I've had more time to— Well." His voice is apologetic, almost gentle, and the familiarity in it makes John uncomfortable in ways he never has before. "I've started to scan through the most recent code, but as far as I know, I'm the only one working on the quarantine procedures," McKay says in a more businesslike tone. "I think it's more likely that there's an interaction problem between the specific infirmary protocols and citywide."
"Well, let me know," John says.
"Or, you know, not," Rodney replies with a thread of amusement in his voice. "McKay out." John's sigh of frustration isn't loud enough to drown out his inner observation that Rodney had sounded almost fond, there, and that a day might not be nearly enough.
The twin sounds of the Stargate connecting and the unscheduled activation alarm saves him from further internal scrutiny, and John makes it into the gateroom in enough time to greet a tired-looking Major Lorne and the two marines he'd taken with him.
"I'm sorry to report that there's no database in that building, sir," Lorne says, straightening his spine with an audible crack. His body language and words may be regulation, but the pure frustration he's harboring in both isn't so much. John hears quick steps coming up behind him, and turns to see Colonel Carter.
"Nothing?" she asks, her lips quirking into a frown.
"The term 'fine-toothed comb' comes to mind," Lorne says, shaking his head. "There's nothing there."
"Well, it was a long-shot," Carter admits. "But, we have more coordinates to search. Thank you, Major." The three men take their leave—heading for the showers, John hopes—and Carter looks over at him.
"Have we heard back from the Genii since I, ah… went missing?" John asks.
"We weren't doing much listening, to tell the truth. It's a good idea, but I'd like to be able to access our weapons before we pursue it any further," she says, crouching down to pick a leaf from the floor that's been tracked in by Lorne or one of his men.
"I just talked to McKay about that," John says. "He's says he's looking through the code, but that it can't possibly be his fault."
"Oh, clearly not." Colonel Carter twirls the leaf through her fingers as the two of them walk up the stairs toward her office. "Well, see what the two of you can come up with, and I'll check into any possible missed messages from the Genii."
John nods and heads for the door. As he exits her office, he catches a glimpse of Colonel Carter's hand dropping the leaf into a squat glass jar on her desk. The jar is already half-full of leaves, and John wonders how many times he's failed to notice this routine of hers, wonders how much she misses going off-world. He doubts he'll take it with as much grace, when it's his turn.
For Rodney, it's been one of those days where nothing he's done has worked out well. He had been almost hoping he was at fault for the armory malfunctions, but he's been completely unable to discover the glitch anywhere in his quarantine code. After going over thousands of lines of code multiple times, Rodney's had to conclude that it's not his error. It's still his error to fix, though, so discovering that it's not something he did is completely not helpful, since now Rodney has a lot more code to go over that he didn't write, which means it's going to be messy and frustrating. At least Zelenka's work is pretty clean, if a little offbeat, he tells himself.
In the back of his mind, he thinks there's something he should have been doing, but it isn't until hours after he turned on the lights in his room that he realizes what it is. The knock on his door is what reminds him, because it causes him to jerk in surprise—which hurts. His body has held off on complaining for longer than Rodney would have thought possible, but now it's singing loud and clear.
Rodney doesn't particularly want to answer the door. Now that he's been disturbed, all he really wants to do is evict his laptop from the bed and go to sleep, clothes and all. The person at his door doesn't take the hint, though, and it's only after the third knock that his residual anger and frustration melt away at the idea that it might, just might be John.
"Keller to McKay," Rodney's radio supplies unhelpfully. It takes a good deal of Rodney's willpower not to respond with a quick 'Go away forever, thanks, bye!' and throw his radio across the room.
"What could you possibly want?" he asks Jennifer instead.
"You could answer your door so I'm not worried you're passed out injured in there, for starters," she answers pertly.
Rodney's disappointment is palpable, and he takes it out on Jennifer.
"Let me get this straight," Rodney starts, fumbling for his crutches with angry, imprecise movements that just fuel his fury. It's totally not fair, and Rodney doesn't really care right now. "If I had been passed out on the floor, you'd be trying to call me on radio instead of breaking down the door?"
"It had occurred to me that there were other reasons to not want to be disturbed," Jennifer says, just as Rodney opens his door to see her standing outside.
"With a broken ankle?" he asks her incredulously, forgetting his anger for a moment.
"You are one of the most determined people I have ever met," Jennifer says with a completely straight face. "Anyway, I came to check on you—"
"Well, you're here, what do you want?" Rodney interrupts. He can feel his irritation bubbling up again, but the truth is that Jennifer has stopped him from spending half the night awake and uncomfortable out of sheer habit, and that's worth something (in the form of not shutting the door in her face), at least.
"I'm here to get your vitals; it was this or call you down to the infirmary yourself. I just came back on duty or I'd have warned you about this earlier," Jennifer tells him. "Apparently, they drew straws for the duty of coming down here, but they 'forgot,'" she does air quotes, "to put in a short straw."
"And you're telling me this because…" Rodney asks, feeling a little hurt. He expects childish ribbing from the scientists, but not the medical team. At least, not since Carson. Even so, he awkwardly waves her in.
"Because I was pretty upset at them, and I thought the best punishment would be to tell you and let them wonder when and if you'll enact your revenge."
Rodney can't help feeling a little impressed, even if it is at his expense. Jennifer points him in the direction of his desk chair and he makes his way over as she pulls out a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff from her medical bag.
"So," Jennifer says as she hooks him up. "Who did you think it was at the door, at first?"
"How —? I mean, I wasn't—" Rodney cuts himself off when he recognizes verbal failure. "It doesn't matter."
"Well, whoever it was, don't give up hope," Jennifer says, starting what Rodney dearly hopes is not going to develop into a 'how-to' lecture. "Don't give me that look," Jennifer scolds. "The deer-in-headlights look you gave me when I got you to have a drink with me was kinda obvious, okay? I'm just saying, I almost gave up on somebody, and I'm glad I didn't."
Deep down, in the part of Rodney's brain that isn't trying to figure out a way to run via crutches out of his own bedroom without looking back, he is maybe, just slightly, possibly interested in what she has to say. Maybe. But he has a reputation to protect.
"Is there anything I can say that would get you to stop before the point where we're supposed to start doing each other's nails?"
"Context is key," Jennifer continues ruthlessly as she sets down her stethoscope and checks his pulse. "I was trying to read him like every other guy I know, and he's not like any of them. Where I thought he was running away from me was actually him avoiding old memories." She stops, jots down his blood pressure and pulse in the little notebook she'd brought with her, and looks him straight in the eye. "Make new ones." Jennifer starts putting her things away, her brows furrowing as she seems to be unable to find something. Rodney suddenly has an awful thought.
"You don't need to take my blood, do you?"
"Nope, I was looking for my nail polish, but it looks like I'm all out," Jennifer says with a sickeningly sweet smile. "G'night, Rodney."
She lets herself out, having cleverly manipulated him into considering her theory. Rodney settles in for bed ten minutes later with hope he hadn't expected and gratitude he isn't sure he's totally comfortable with.
Rodney had expected his concentration to be completely shot, all morning. Inexplicable error that he's being indirectly blamed for while simultaneously being expected to fix? Check. Inability to move freely due to a serious injury that has been mostly ignored by his peers? Check. Working environment in distant, hard to reach area? Check. Work 'partner' with possible homophobic tendencies, the probable ability to drive Rodney crazy in more ways than one, and a certain predilection toward being absolutely no help whatsoever? Check. Rodney's focused enough on being precise with his current task that he can recognize he's exaggerating, but he's frustrated enough that he doesn't care.
For all his outward projections of confidence, he still isn't entirely sure his workaround will succeed, particularly since, to his immense frustration, he hasn't discovered the cause of the glitch, yet. Add to that dueling concerns of pain and medication, top it off with an undercurrent of distraction, and really, he's pretty sure the only thing keeping him sane is John's half-flattering, half-insulting behavior.
"So help me, Sheppard, if you let me fall over because you're worried I'll lay a hand on you…" he snaps, forced to drop his crimping tool in favor of grasping at the wall for balance. They're far from any prying ears as they're in a mostly unused part of the city working on the door to the smallest (and therefore, technically expendable) of the weapons rooms. Still, John's kept a steady two-foot gap between them for ninety minutes, and there's only so much Rodney can do with his armpits full of crutches.
"You seem to be doing just fine with the wall," John says with shaky sarcasm. Rodney turns his face away from Sheppard to hide his relief—he'd honestly expected stony silence at best, but John seems to be trying his best to sustain their normal banter despite the physical distance. Still, he really had almost fallen and would have probably ended up breaking something else, with his luck, so he allows himself to retaliate.
The instant it's out of his mouth, Rodney regrets it, and he endures the resulting silence as best he can by refocusing his attention on the hydraulics he's trying to rig up. When he allows himself a quick glance at Sheppard a minute or so later, though, he's surprised to see that John's ears are a little pink. Interesting. When he looks more closely, though, he notices that John's entire body is tense, his jaw jumping a little as though he's clenching and unclenching his teeth.
"I'm sorry," Rodney says sincerely. "I shouldn't have—"
"I didn't expect you to be like this," John says, voice tightly controlled. "Joking."
"What, did you think I'd be trying to pin you against the wall—or worse, stalking around, sulking? Even if I wanted to—wounded, here." Rodney studiously ignores the parts of his brain that try to activate at these words, helpfully offering scenarios.
"No! I—" John stops quickly with a huff of breath. "Just… let's change the subject, okay?"
The strangest thing to Rodney is that John doesn't seem angry, just frustrated, which doesn't track at all with his usual rejection scenarios. Then again, he usually doesn't take this long to get to the point where he crashes and burns, his relationship with Katie Brown notwithstanding. He tries not to think about what Jennifer told him the night before and fails miserably.
Rodney twists his fingers without really paying attention, the door slides open, and then they're too busy trying to duplicate the effect to talk about anything but the task at hand.
John spends the next week avoiding Rodney, having meetings, avoiding Rodney some more, and overseeing a lot of things that he probably could have delegated to someone else, except for the fact that they let him avoid Rodney.
He had thought avoiding Rodney would have been easy, considering the broken ankle, but McKay is uncharacteristically productive, rather than choosing to milk his injury for all its worth. Luckily, with their team on stand-down until Teyla recovers, it's easy for him to rationalize the need to reconnect with all the little details, especially since they continue to have difficulties solving the problem of the armory doors. He's also spending a good deal of his time in the gateroom or talking to his SG team leaders about the many reconnaissance missions they've been doing. With Zelenka's carefully extricated information on Michael's planetary bases, as well as the small amount of side data they collected from the other modules, it really feels as though they're tightening the noose. Still, John worries that they're going to run out of luck, which takes him right back to their issues here on Atlantis. It would make him feel so much better if he could focus all his concern on his men, and not have to worry that more coding malfunctions will limit their access to other key locations in Atlantis.
At least Radek and Rodney were able to offer a unique temporary solution to the armory problem—temporary being the operative word. The two scientists had been working on creative uses for the city's shield; primarily, the ability to use the shield anywhere in the city, rather than in specific, pre-programmed areas. Thanks to the fact that the expedition isn't using anywhere near the entire city of Atlantis, they've managed to set up a hallway 'room' in an out of the way place to house the bulk of their stored munitions. The shielded area is technically 'off the grid,' meaning the boundaries within it aren't aligned with any of the areas the city can already activate shields, and it's powered by its own naquadah generator. The guards that John has assigned to the space have been with him since the first year, and they have orders not to allow anyone near the shield, the weapons, or the generator without John's specific say-so.
It's a lot of bother for a systems glitch, but if it turns out not to have been accidental, John worries that it might not be enough. Ronon's words have stuck with him over the past few days, and John feels a little bit like he's finally gotten the engine power to fly above the cloudbank, only to see a possible thunderhead forming straight ahead of him. It doesn't help that the bulk of the inspiration for the shield generator is Rodney's. He doesn't want to jeopardize their safety for any reason, but at the same time, John doesn't want to send Rodney the wrong message. He hopes to somehow get back to the way they were before, friends, joking around, that sort of thing—but the only way this will be possible is if he makes himself entirely clear to Rodney from the start.
That this includes making his intentions clear to himself as well is… a bit more complicated. He's always been the person to flout authority in any way he can, whether it's his father telling him he can't go sailing without knowing how to swim (he had immediately jumped into the water to prove he could at least tread water sufficiently—he couldn't) or wearing his hair longer than regulation because he's living on a base light-years away from his superiors (John had done it at first because, hello? Possible one-way trip; he'd continued because he was waiting for the day someone wasted valuable power complaining over his hairdo, so he could tell them exactly what mattered in the Pegasus galaxy). When he'd mentioned to his family that his best friend from high school was going to enlist, John's father's reaction had been to instantly and vehemently demand that John never entertain such an idea himself.
Naturally, for John, this meant that he became interested in the idea; he'd always wanted to fly, anyway, and commercial piloting wasn't exactly the pinnacle career he'd been hoping for. And when he'd found out exactly what the armed forces of the United States thought of homosexuality, John had recalled the stirrings of interest he'd had as a teenager, and promptly acted on them, telling himself that no one—and especially not his future employer—had the right to judge him for who he slept with. Those days were many years in the past, and he hadn't had much occasion to think of them at all, right up until Dr. Rodney McKay had decided to remind him. It didn't help that John had rarely kissed other men, adopting the attitude that it was far too intimate an action for someone like himself, who was always and forever just passing through.
He'd been right to assume as much. When he's honest with himself, he recognizes that he's become a little obsessed with that moment, here angry and resentful for Rodney's imposition, there catching himself reliving it without realizing it until the rush of warmth that's Rodney's mouth wakes him from his dream in the wee hours of the morning. Rodney's his friend, he reminds himself. He's busy trying to find a psychopathic murderer while simultaneously organizing the ongoing defense of his city—he doesn't need anything complicating his life more than that. But the things John did when he was rebelling against his father and God only knows what else aren't quite as buried as John thought.
How fitting, John thinks to himself in one of his lighter moments, that blunt, stubborn Rodney would become the shovel that dug it all up.
Rodney's used to being underappreciated, so it had really surprised him when he'd gone back to the lab (with an eye toward abusing the fact that he had one of the few imported rolling chairs in Atlantis) and so many of the science team asked him how he was doing. He'd felt oddly charitable towards them, that is, until he really listened to what they were saying, as opposed to nodding absently, thanking them for their concern, and waving them away.
"Are you sure you don't want to put your foot up?" "I would think your quarters would be a lot more comfortable than here, what a work ethic!" "Gee, Dr. McKay, I thought it was really bad for the healing process to spend so much of the day without your ankle elevated!"
It isn't until a few days after he had returned to the lab that Rodney finally figures out what they are saying, and once he does, he takes it upon himself to assign every single dirty, time-wasting job that he'd been putting off for the sake of productivity. Half the idiots in his lab are only there because they are just smart enough to follow directions to the letter anyway. He could probably run Atlantis with just a handful of the truly brilliant ones like Zelenka and Simpson.
He stares balefully at his crutches. What he really wants to do is get dressed and stalk—he really misses stalking—down to the gateroom, haul John somewhere private, and order him to stop acting like a moron. Besides the avoidance, John isn't acting like a stereotypical straight man would in this situation—for which Rodney is very grateful, but still finds extremely maddening. Instead of treating Rodney like he's suddenly gone stupid (something Rodney never could understand. What made some people instantly devalue the opinion of someone purely based on their sexuality?), or as if Rodney's always on the verge of propositioning him (another supremely idiotic reaction that has, in the past, provoked Rodney to do just that). John's just… nervous.
It's a lot harder to deal with, made more so by Rodney's realization that John hadn't actually rejected him verbally, nor had he said or done anything to immediately assert his heterosexuality. Rodney sighs and fastens his watch a notch tighter than normal, trying to tear his mind away from this train of thought. Rejection had been so much easier when it was unequivocal. It also hurt a lot less, too.
After taking twenty minutes to reach his lab, Rodney has a grand total of forty-five minutes to bask in the fact that he has an office with a surprisingly comfortable desk chair before Zelenka shows up with more bad news.
"Today, I had to walk to work," Radek says from the doorway.
"Go on, mock my pain," Rodney grumbles, nursing his coffee. "When you got here, did your armpits and hands feel like they were on fire? No? Then stop complaining."
"No, no," Zelenka persists. "The entire way. Transporter malfunction."
Rodney looks up. "Could you get in, or was the whole thing unresponsive? Because, I'm really sick of doors that don't work."
"The doors opened, but from there, nothing."
"Huh," Rodney says, calling up the city's schematics. Immediately he sees that there are two transporters whose outlines appear on the screen in a maroon color, indicating a problem. Interestingly, the transporter he had used to get to the lab was one of them, meaning it had gone down within the last hour. "Were you able to get any data from the terminal?" he asks Zelenka.
"I came here first; I want to take Dr. Simpson and one of the laptops with expanded memory card," Radek says, gesturing to the lab through the open door behind him. "She calls it the 'buddy system.'"
"The last time I heard her use that phrase, she was enlisting Miko to pass along messages to me instead of using the radios like everyone else," Rodney says, looking for Radek to support his confused headshake.
"That was for translation," Radek says, making absolutely no sense at all. "Less profanity," he clarifies, pushing his glasses up his nose in a move that draws attention to his smile. "This is in case the doors decide to mimic problem in the armory—I have spent enough time trapped in a transporter to last several lifetimes," he says, crossing his arms.
Anything Rodney has to say to that brings too many uncomfortable subtopics, so he decides to nod approvingly at Radek and make a quick note to assign Simpson coffee duty next month. Not only does she hate doing it, but her coffee is actually better than Miko's.
It only takes Rodney half an hour to write a subroutine that checks all of the transporters in Atlantis for similar malfunctions. The results are staggering. Their energy-saving measure of only having certain systems generate a report when a malfunction is identified by an expedition member has backfired in the worst way. Fully twenty of the city's fifty transporters are out of commission. Thankfully, most are in areas of the city that they don't use.
And suddenly, the thing that's been nagging at Rodney solidifies in his mind. "Radek," he says into his radio. "Transporter commands weren't part of my quarantine protocols. I think this has to be more than a programming glitch."
When John walks into the conference room for their emergency staff meeting, he notices two things right away: one, it's the first time he'll have seen Rodney for longer than five minutes in passing for almost a week, and two, Ronon's not there. Before he gets a chance to ask about the latter, Sam calls for everyone's attention.
"First things first," she says, and out of the corner of his eye, John sees Rodney sit up straight, clearly expecting to be called on. "John, how goes the search?" John is momentarily distracted by the fleeting look of outrage on McKay's face, but he is sure it will fade when Rodney realizes what John's reporting on.
"We've done a thorough sweep of three bases that seem to be abandoned; I don't know if it's our luck or if Michael has decided to switch to hive ships for more mobility," John says. "The bad news is we haven't found Michael, or any more databases like the first one. The good news is that with the obvious narrowed search parameters, it's very likely that we'll come across another computer. If we can extract it without activating another booby trap, we may be able to use all of the information, rather than picking one chunk." John leans back, twisting his face in frustration. "Ronon thinks that the last time Michael's used any of those three sites is at least six months ago, more like a year. The other planets we've looked over look like they were resource only, no bases." He can feel his face twist with regret as he adds the final piece of information. "There's been no sign of Teyla's son anywhere."
"Understood," Carter says, her brows furrowing as she nods. "Disappointing, but at least there have been no setbacks. This remains at the highest priority—keep up the pace, if you can. Thank you, John. Rodney?"
"We've got a big problem," McKay says immediately. "As I expected, my quarantine code isn't responsible for the armory door breakdowns—and this morning I discovered that a large number of the city's transporters are also malfunctioning. Thanks to our usual luck, it turns out that this problem may have started as early as a week ago, but our protocols weren't set to test any devices that weren't in use." He pauses to take a rumpled paper that John recognizes as a city diagram out of the folder in front of him, sliding it across the table to Sam. "As you can see, it looks like it's only a matter of time before more go down, and all I've been able to find is a ridiculous number of redirects when I try to trace the commands that are causing this." Rodney looks up, his expression grave. "It looks like sabotage."
John's skin seems to tighten as a surge of adrenaline courses through him. "You're sure?" he can't help asking.
The withering look Rodney shoots at him is not entirely undeserved, John admits, but damn it, it's his city, and he's worried.
"Entirely." Rodney turns his attention to Sam. "The point is: we're vulnerable. Our mobility is severely hindered, and the central weapons locations we chose for strategic importance have been neutralized."
"Colonel," Sam says, her voice strangely formal, "can you recall anything during your discussion about city defense with Specialist Dex that might have seemed out of the ordinary?"
It's only her use of his title that stops John from immediately answering 'No!' without thinking about it. As it is, he thinks back, but the only thing his instincts told him was that Ronon was worried about the city's safety.
"No. He was genuinely worried, but not in a way that seemed vindictive." He shakes his head. "Ronon's not like that—if he wanted to teach us a lesson in our inadequacies, he'd challenge us all to beat him in hand to hand." John expects that Sam will drop the subject and move on, covering all the bases like the good commander he knows she is.
"That does sound like him," Sam says with a slight smile. "Still, as difficult as this is to say, we may need to talk to him and get a feel for why he felt the need to bring up our security issues right before they started becoming an issue."
"Is that why Ronon isn't here?" John asks, feeling the edge of the table bite into his palms where he's grasping it tightly.
"Ronon is with Lt. Keras' team—the latest planet to search seems perfect for a base; his tracking skills were needed," Zelenka cuts in, his eyes flicking back and forth between John and Sam nervously. "He told me this morning but I forgot until now."
"Jennifer—what about your DNA verification," Sam continues after nodding her thanks to Radek. "Have you been able to break it down any?"
John watches this exchange with a sinking feeling in his stomach that rivals the last time he lost power in a fighter jet.
"No, not yet," Keller says, tucking her hair carefully behind her ears before clasping her hands in front of her tightly. "The serum she was injected with seems to have been specifically designed to scatter and distort certain elements of the victim's DNA. I haven't been able to find an intact telomere to measure, not to mention the fact that Athosian DNA is close but not identical to ours."
"Wait a minute," Rodney says, his voice overloud in the enclosed space. "Ronon? Teyla? This list better be longer than two people, because there's no way in hell either of them is involved in this!"
"Rodney, I know how hard it is—" Sam starts, but Rodney struggles to his feet, crutches and all.
"Don't give me that, Sam! When I met you, you were about ready to toss me through the stargate into a black hole for the mere thought that Teal'c wasn't as valuable as the rest of your team."
"And if you'd read all the mission reports," Sam fires back, agitation but not quite anger sharpening her voice, "you'd know that Teal'c was once brainwashed by Apophis after an absence from the SGC. I don't like pointing fingers, and I won't do it blindly, but I won't refuse to do it, either." Sam stands up as Rodney grudgingly sits back down. "I'm going with what I have right now. If any of you have other suggestions or come across more information on who might be doing this, I ask you to please speak to me. Thank you." She looks down at the blueprint Rodney had given her, and as John watches, she releases a big breath and shuts her eyes for a long moment. This is almost (but not quite) enough for John to stand down his anger; what really got him to do so, though, had been Rodney.
"John, could I talk to you a moment before you go?" Sam says, all business again. He nods, but his focus is still Rodney, who is adjusting his crutches wearing a frown that does John's heart good to observe.
What John really wants to do is to jog over to Rodney and give him a heartfelt squeeze on the shoulder. Instead, he calls out to him from across the room.
Rodney scowls, and John wonders if he's the only person in Atlantis who knows that particular scowl actually means McKay is pleased.
"Team is team, Sheppard," he says, holding John's gaze for a long moment before turning to join Zelenka just outside the multiple doors.
For his part, John steels himself for facing Carter. He hopes she won't want to discuss Rodney's outburst, because John is proud of Rodney for what he did, and if he hadn't have done it, John would have.
"John, I want you to think about who you would choose to keep watch over Teyla and/or Ronon, should the need arise."
Me, John wants to say. That's not what she wants to hear, though, and it's not feasible. John punts.
"Are you so sure the need will arise?"
"Not at all, but if it does, it will be urgent, and neither of us want to have to go through this disagreement at a time when it's Atlantis's safety at stake," Sam says astutely.
"It's at stake now," John points out.
"Exactly." She sits down and looks up at John, her eyes clear and unblinking. "The last thing I want to do is foster the impression that we don't trust anyone from the Pegasus galaxy. I want to be wrong. I hope I'm wrong," Sam says, raising her eyebrows. "But until I can be proved wrong, we have to cover all the bases." Sam starts gathering the reports and other papers on the table to take with her. "Walk with me?"
John really wants to go hit things, or even better, get hit with them, but Ronon isn't back from offworld yet, and Teyla's still recuperating. He recognizes Carter's offer for what it is, though, so he follows her out of the room and walks beside her on the way to her office.
"I'd like you to keep an eye on things while I'm reporting to the SGC," she tells him.
"I thought the weekly call-in was tomorrow?"
"We did, but they need to know what's going on, especially if we need to shut down all gate operations until we identify the danger," Sam says. "It isn't that I anticipate anything dire," she goes on, "but with how frequent the reports are—the latest transporter to stop responding, Radek's breakthroughs on the Wraith tech, and our two teams doing recon on the planets Radek identifies—I need to be clear and thorough with General Landry, and the best way to do that is without interruptions."
"Understood," John says. "At what point should I interrupt anyway?"
"If the self-destruct activates, let me know," Sam jokes. "In all seriousness, this shouldn't take longer than a half hour, and by the time I'm back—"
"Whoa," John says. "You're reporting to them on Earth?"
"It's cheaper, energy-wise," she says. "Besides, we have teams out there. I don't want to tie up the Stargate if they need to come home. Just hold down the fort until I get back, okay?"
"You got it," John says. "Better you than me, anyway," he adds, almost under his breath. Sam places the papers she'd gathered in the conference room into a folder on her desk, and then puts that folder into a briefcase. Standing where Elizabeth had always stood, and where, sometimes, Sam does as well, John sees her off with a smile and a nod. After watching the puddle wink out to reveal the afternoon sunlight shining through one of the stained-glass windows, he turns to head back to do inventory. He's making his way past the control console to the upper level transporter when he catches a comment from one of the gate techs that sounds unusual.
"There it is again!" The speaker is male, and he sounds irritated, maybe even a little anxious.
"Is there a problem?" John says, walking over with his hands resting comfortably on his belt.
"I—" the young man begins to say, then looks up. "Colonel Sheppard," he says with an awkward smile. "I'm not clear on exactly who I'm meant to report this to. I mean, the protocol states the commanding officer—" The gate tech stops and takes a deep breath, tipping his head toward the Stargate to indicate Colonel Carter's recent departure. John now recognizes him as one of his newest servicemen from the Daedalus's recent supply run, a senior airman named Harold Leprain.
"You can go ahead and tell me, if anyone else needs to know, we'll determine that in a moment," John says encouragingly.
"Sir, there's an unauthorized power drain coming from a small lab near the edge of the east dock," Leprain says. He's using a less shaky voice than before, but he's definitely still nervous. "It's not very strong, but it looks like more than a simple malfunction—the readings are intermittent."
John nods, feeling himself start to tense up again. Usually in a situation like this, he'd call McKay and ask him if any of his people were working in that lab, but he distinctly remembers Rodney griping about how he hasn't gotten authorization for outer-city exploration in months. On top of that, he's still not sure exactly how he feels about McKay right now—the awkwardness John feels around him right now is tempered by the pride he feels in the way Rodney spoke up for their teammates. The thing is, this is Atlantis, and she deserves everything he can do to keep her safe. In any case, he's glad someone noticed the problem before whatever it is became clearly dangerous; he tells himself to remember to write something favorable in Leprain's file.
In the battle of which confrontation he'd rather not be involved in, calling out to Carter minutes after she's just left wins, not to mention the fact that, for now, this is a low-level issue. The plan that's solidifying in his head is one he doesn't think she'd approve of, anyway. He knows he'll have to ask Ronon not to go offworld until they discover who or what is behind the various errors and malfunctions, and chances are great that Ronon will want to take part in the investigation, under suspicion or not. He can't call McKay down to make this a team effort, but just as he's wracking his brain for an alternative, the Stargate engages, and SGA-4's puddlejumper crosses through the event horizon with Ronon in the copilot's seat. John decides he's okay with coincidence making up his mind for him.
He looks over at the hovering gate tech and lifts his eyebrows. "First day?" he asks. He leaves the scheduling up to Lorne.
"Yes, sir," Leprain says, looking relieved.
"Good work. I'll take care of this—and, Airman? Don't let them bully you," John advises, heading towards the jumper bay to propose his clandestine mission to Ronon.
"So if Sergeant Campbell tells me I'm not allowed to touch my coffee rations for two weeks?" Leprain's voice chases John across the glass walkway. He already sounds a lot more confident.
"Use his, instead," John calls back, hiding his smile.
Rodney has always liked the term 'high dudgeon.' For him, something about it speaks of righteous anger as well as a hint that it would be in everyone's best interest to steer clear of someone in that state. Sometimes he wishes he could put up the wooden 'mood indicator' he had used when he'd been in Siberia, but, given the SGC's propensity for hiring people with strong personalities and unusually high levels of motivation, he is pretty sure he couldn't trust his minions not to modify it just like his lab assistants in Russia had. The rectangle of wood had a range of mental states starting at '1: Calm and Productive' and ending at '10: Mad Scientist,' with nails sticking out at each number, meant to hold the red rubber indicator that designated his mood at the time. He had returned from a mostly-unsatisfying bout of sulking in his office one morning to find that someone had found a hammer and nails and had added a few more notches above 10 along the wall, with the indicator ball stuck under '15: Typical McKay.'
Right now, Rodney thinks he's at about a thirteen. As much as he admires—and, yes, respects—Sam Carter, he's fundamentally offended at the idea that Earth-based Atlantis expedition members are apparently above suspicion, but two dedicated, honorable 'aliens' (he still finds the word hard to use while referring to either Teyla or Ronon) are immediately considered suspects. It's galling, insulting, and… though his anger is useful in that it gets him down to his office without noticing his self-named 'crutches fatigue,' the drawback is that he kind of wants to march right back up to the control room and give Sam another piece of his mind. It's been an hour since the meeting and Rodney's still het up enough that he can see the sidelong glances from anyone that enters the lab and passes within eyeshot of his open office door. He'd shut it, but, while anyone in the lab can hear him just fine if he yells through the door, they all pretend they can't, and the last time Rodney conducted lab business over his radio, John had teased him about it for a month.
It isn't as much that Rodney wants to avoid this possibility as he's worried that it won't happen at all, now that Sheppard's replaced his usual self with Avoid and Repress Sheppard (comes with free P-90 and uncomfortable expression!). Rodney suddenly pictures the look on John's face after the meeting and cheers up a little, though this sentiment is followed almost immediately by a pang of missing John that's strong enough to prompt Rodney to shut his office door and consider eavesdropping on the city's radio chatter in hopes of hearing his voice. As it happens, he doesn't have to.
"Sheppard to McKay." The asshole in Rodney tells him to wait until the second or third call. The lonely part of him wins out.
"McKay here." Rodney doesn't have time to add a retort before John responds, which is probably just as well.
"You and Radek are both out of commission right now. Who would you suggest I take with me to investigate an anomalous power drain in the unexplored part of the city?"
"Sam, but she's the commander and they're supposed to stay all Star Trek cozy in the control room and supervise," Rodney says.
"Right now that's me," John says. "Colonel Carter's at the SGC reporting about our saboteur."
"Then you're out," Rodney says. "Tell me where it is, I can check it out."
"On crutches? Look, I've got Ronon here, just tell me what scientist to take with us and—"
"I already answered this once for you: Abhijit Kanjula," Rodney snaps. "And I meant I could check it out on my computer, Mr. Thinks Inside the Box."
"Perfect," John says, telegraphing his intent to go with them; "We'll keep you posted."
"If you get yourself killed, who will fly the city?" Rodney asks quietly, against his instincts to bludgeon John into compliance. He's lucky enough that Sheppard's including him at all, given his behavior in the past couple of days. "Ronon's practically an SG team himself, anyway."
There's no reply, and it's only the fact that he's busily pulling up the city's schematics and looking for what John's talking about that stops Rodney from demanding that he be told exactly what's going on. It's not hard to find it; when he searches by power use, one small room in the far reaches of the city lights up like a supernova.
"We're at the lab," Ronon says by radio, ten minutes later. Rodney sits up straighter and presses a hand to the receiver in his ear. He doesn't want to miss any part of this conversation in case John's 'done a Sheppard' and gone anyway.
"At first glance, there's nothing out of place," another person reports. The Indian accent is pronounced; Rodney recognizes Dr. Kanjula's voice and relaxes a little. If Ronon and possibly John are messing around in a lab without him, at least they listened to Rodney and brought a scientist who won't immediately screw everything up. He looks up from the outdated exploration report he's been using to try to identify the lab's theorized function to look for Ronon and whoever he's got with him. Two dots. Thank you, John.
"The computer here is definitely in use," Kanjula continues.
"Gotta be by remote, though," Ronon cuts in. "Everything's covered; no footprints in the dust."
"Can you see any indication of what's being worked on?" Rodney asks.
"Accessing the local database now," Kanjula says. "I think— What happened? What—" The radio cuts out, and Rodney tilts his head a bit, as if straining to hear what's being said but not transmitted.
"—didn't touch anything." Ronon's voice sounds distant, clearly responding to Abhijit. "Sheppard, everything just turned on."
"Your power consumption just tripled," Rodney says, thinking but not saying, What did you do?
"I just lost access!" Kanjula reports in agitation. "Something is happening, and— Wait. 'Venting,' it says."
"Get out of there!" John commands. Rodney, fingers flying over the keys, has only just started breaking the complex encryption that's protecting any command from going through to the lab, without pausing to tell them he's on it.
"It is not venting in here, it's… A large vat is elevating itself in the center of the room—"
"—trying to vent into Atlantis," Ronon cuts in.
Rodney's at least five minutes from cracking the encryption. It's not going to be enough, but no one else can be anywhere near as far along as he is, so he keeps going, trying to divorce his actions from what he's listening to. That it isn't John risking an unknown danger this time is hardly a comfort, given who else is still down there.
"See if you can—"
"On it," Ronon cuts John off, and a second later there's a loud crashing sound that's probably glass breaking. Rodney can remember what the run-down lab looked like in their first weeks on Atlantis, the one with the bioengineered diseases that had nearly killed him, and his fingers falter for a half second.
"Ronon!" John shouts.
"We're fine for now," comes the not quite reassuring reply. "Not sure what was in there, but—"
"The door we came in through has shut on its own," Dr. Kanjula interrupts shakily.
"It's the quarantine protocol," Rodney tells them, finally speaking an impossible four minutes sooner than he'd expected to, but still too late to affect anything. "And it's not an error, this time."
John feels helpless—and it's the worst kind of helpless: the kind where he's not tied up and confined somewhere, out of the loop and running out of time, but he might as well be for all he can contribute. He can't do much more than supervise, and while technically he's glad it's not him this time, it turns out that crisis situations are a lot harder to deal with when he's not the one who needs to be saved, or when he can't do the saving.
"Okay, we're in position," Keller's voice interrupts John's train of thought.
"All right, engaging shield and overriding quarantine door protocol now," Rodney reports.
It's been an agonizing twenty minutes. Their computer system has clearly been tampered with by someone who knows the way Atlantis thinks—the city itself and her inhabitants. Where they would normally have been able to discover what had been housed in the suspect lab, now they're getting only gibberish. Despite Rodney's hand in a vast number of procedures and base coding, he's been completely stymied by what John's afraid may be a virus that could destroy all that they've accomplished in four years of living and working here.
The instant that the quarantine code kicked in, John had called Dr. Keller and instructed her to gather enough hazmat suits for her team and the two people trapped in the lab, having no way of knowing if they would even be alive by the time she'd reach them. Luckily, neither Ronon nor Dr. Kanjula have developed symptoms of anything, but Atlantis is convinced they've been infected, and that's enough to worry. So far, everyone's kept their cool but Rodney (and John suspects that has more to do with his own problems with feeling helpless, as John hasn't had to ask him twice for anything, despite the ranting he's heard over the radio), and somehow John's managed to oversee a crisis that was initiated less than five minutes from when Colonel Carter left him in charge and stepped through the Stargate.
She's due back any minute.
"Temperature and blood pressure both within normal ranges," Jennifer reports, her language hinting that, while physically fine, her patients might be less than fine emotionally.
"I've reengaged the computer's control over the door," Rodney says. "Once everyone is suited up, it should let you through—unless, of course, that is part of the sabotage, in which case, we might all be screwed," he adds darkly.
"Thanks, McKay," John says with sarcasm. "Though, if you recall, we've been there and done that, and we're all still here."
"We're through," Ronon rumbles. "Should keep us down here, Sheppard. Safer."
"The very fact that the door worked means this can be contained," Jennifer says. "ETA to the infirmary is seven minutes."
John can hear her going on to justify herself further to Ronon, but overlaid on Jennifer's words is the sound of the Stargate engaging. John locks eyes with Chuck, who mouths a quick 'good luck' and goes back to looking busy. John jogs down the staircase to meet Sam.
"Things got exciting while you were away," he says. "Walk with me to the infirmary?"
Typically for Carter, her reaction is to be concerned rather than needlessly upset, though she registers her disappointment in John's decision to send Ronon, given the recent tension at the staff meeting. They arrive at the infirmary doors a few minutes after the medical team, and Dr. Biro briefs them on what Jennifer is doing for Ronon and Abhijit. That's when Jennifer comes out from the bank of long-term rooms and takes off her hazmat helmet.
"Well, it's not communicable, that's a comfort," she tells them, pushing back hair from her sweaty forehead with one hand. "I sent out a sample of each of their blood right away, I should be—yes," she says as a nurse rushes over to hand her a tablet computer that John assumes has the results of the test.
Jennifer looks up with a stricken expression on her face.
"It's the Hoffan virus."
John feels like the room has just depressurized.
"How long before they could show symptoms?" Sam asks, her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
"Hours, a few days—if we're lucky, and they didn't get full exposure…" Jennifer looks down at the tablet again and winces. "It's Michael's modified version, so the chances are higher that, well." She pauses, clearly unwilling to say what they were all thinking. "I've got a team of guys in suits sterilizing the whole area, and after they're done I'd like to have that section completely blocked off for a few days, to be sure."
"I agree," Sam says. Before she has a chance to speak again, Jennifer holds a hand up and rushes through a small speech.
"I know you're gonna ask how this happened, and yes, we have some small samples of his virus, but I swear they're protected. I want to go check that right now, but I wanted to say, this test result—broken down, it doesn't look exactly like what we were studying." She looks miserable, and John can understand why. He's seen the shy smiles she's directed toward Ronon on occasion, and if it turns out that her research has endangered his life, he's sure she will find it hard to forgive herself. John doesn't want to think about how many times what he's done has jeopardized Rodney's life, and how that—
Wait. What? John asks himself. Before he has a chance to analyze the comparison he's just made, he hears a commotion at the entrance to the infirmary, and is surprised to see Rodney and Teyla coming toward them. John glances over at Sam and hears Jennifer ask to be excused, presumably to check on her stores of virus.
"Sorry I took so long, I was busy making an ass out of myself trying to raise Teyla on the radio to tell her what was going on when I finally realized she didn't have a radio anymore," Rodney says, collapsing in a heap of crutches and indignation on a nearby chair. "Then, because Atlantis hates me, all of the transporters within fifty feet of her room aren't working right now. So, how are they?" he asks, shifting gears from rant to concern as only Rodney can.
John lets Sam fill them in, and at her gently worded suggestion that Michael is behind all of this, Teyla bows her head in obvious distress. He walks over to her, wanting to offer comfort in some way but feeling completely unequal to the task. He feels like he has let her down in so many ways, not the least of which in forgetting to ensure that she had a way to communicate with her team. He rests a hand on her arm, and she shies away—then he sees that he'd brushed against a small cut on her arm. Teyla reaches out a steady hand to grip his, and he squeezes back in a silent apology.
Jennifer only lets them go in to see Ronon one by one, and Jennifer makes them wear masks and gloves on the chance that the slight variations in this strain mean that it can survive in the open air. By consensus, John goes in first. Ronon's sitting on the bed, looking caged and wearing scrubs.
"Don't, Sheppard," Ronon says before John has a chance to apologize. "You did the right thing."
John reminds himself to stop underestimating Ronon's perceptiveness so much.
"If I get sick," Ronon starts to say. John holds up his hands, but Ronon isn't deterred. "If I get it, Sheppard, let me go down fighting." He stands up and points to the door. "Send me to a Wraith planet."
John's chilled by the implications, even as he realizes he should have guessed this would be what Ronon would want. He doesn't know what to say, though he knows what he should say: something about how there's a good chance he won't get sick, or that even if he does, some people recover, and that he should never lose hope. Instead, he remembers being trapped by a lunatic in a space dock as Ronon snapped his own dislocated shoulder back into position and asked John to make sure he went down fighting.
"I'll see what I can do," John finds himself saying. "Don't get sick, okay? We need you, buddy." He walks out, feeling the weight of their brief conversation pulling at him until he stops short on seeing Rodney waiting just outside the door.
"What?" Rodney says defensively. "You think you and Teyla have the monopoly on caring about your teammates?" He lifts his chin and his crutches at the same time and takes a step toward Ronon's room.
"Wait, McKay," John says. He walks over and gingerly tucks the strings for the mask that's hanging at Rodney's neck around each ear, walking away before he can see Rodney's expression—and before Rodney can read anything in John's.
A half hour later, when Teyla's with Ronon, Sam calls John, Rodney, Jennifer, and Radek (who had stopped by to see both Ronon and Dr. Kanjula) into Jennifer's office. Rodney makes a surprisingly efficient beeline for the padded desk chair, Radek pulls up a chair to sit at the desk with his computer, and Jennifer leans up against the far wall. John's far too twitchy to sit, so he tucks his hands under his elbows and waits for Sam, who is standing in front of the shut door, ready to address them all.
"It's clear that things are a lot more serious than we thought," she begins. "What's done is done, but I think it's time for some tightened security: a curfew, starting at 1900 hours, after which all personnel should travel in groups of two or call for a military escort to their destinations. Exceptions for living quarters, of course," she adds. "This will make extra work for your people, John—" and John doesn't point out that, given her placement as the commander here, they're really her people.
"We'll be fine," he says.
"I'm going to need you to designate a few soldiers to stand guard at Teyla's quarters, John," Sam says next. He shoots a quick look around the room; Rodney looks sullen, Radek is at the desk typing furiously on his tablet, and Jennifer's biting her lip, looking supremely uncomfortable. John gestures to the door towards the room Ronon and Teyla are in.
"Is this to protect her from us, or us from her?" he asks. "You've been here long enough to know how news travels, here. Teyla's already lost her people, her lover, and her son, has she lost us, too? And what about Ronon?"
"Quarantine rooms on Atlantis have an alarm that sounds if the room is empty," Sam says, almost apologetically. "I'm not looking to turn this into a blame issue," Sam continues, looking around the table and making eye contact with everyone in turn. "I know this is hard for all of us, but I see this quite clearly as prevention and protection." She steps forward, closing the circle that they've all unconsciously made by their positions in the room. "Rodney, Radek—how are you coming with the system virus?"
"It's well hidden," Rodney says, frowning. "I hate to say it, but unless we catch it in the act, we're talking a line-by-line search, which is…"
"Nemožný," Radek interrupts. "Impossible. The database is just too big."
"It's faster to just write a program designed to catch it red-handed," Rodney admits. "I was on my way to unlock some of the city's own indexing protocols when John discovered the sabotage."
"Make finishing that your priority," Sam tells him, looking over to include Zelenka with a nod. "All right, I'll make the curfew announcement in fifteen minutes. Does anyone else have any concerns they'd like to bring up?"
"I do," Jennifer says, pushing off from the wall. "If and when, and, I wanna stress the 'when,'" she says, looking down for a brief second, "—Teyla and Ronon are proven innocent, can we make that very clear, send out an announcement, maybe?" Jennifer presses her lips together. "News travels fast in Atlantis, and I imagine one or both of them will be hurt enough as it is. I know I would be."
"Absolutely," Sam says. "I'm every bit as unhappy with this as you are, but we're incredibly vulnerable here, as these acts of sabotage have proved. The sooner we can find who's behind this, the sooner we can focus all our attention where it belongs—finding Michael and rescuing Teyla's son."
The tone of finality in her voice soothes John's anger a little. He turns to leave, intending to catch Teyla on her way back to her room, so he can explain what's going on. He hopes he can do it in a way that doesn't make it sound like they're turning their backs on her. As he leaves, he sees Jennifer pulling Sam aside with a look that borders on misery. He wonders again if she and Ronon have managed to come to some sort of understanding since Ronon's query about her earlier in the week, and whether that's contributing to her sense of responsibility now. Even if that was his business, he doesn't have time to stick around to ask her; Teyla needs him, and he needs to prove to her that Atlantis still needs her.
Teyla was in the hallway when Sam made the announcement over citywide that there would be a curfew in response to recent events, as a precaution. The way she words it makes it sound as though this is to protect everyone from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, to prevent people from taking late night walks and being stranded in the far reaches of Atlantis without a transporter. Teyla knows better, after having looked into Ronon's eyes and seen a kind of worry she's never sensed from him before.
Teyla had politely refused Jennifer's offer of a cane to help with the fatigue of walking, but now she wonders if that had been a mistake. She slowly rounds the corner, pacing herself on her way to her quarters, and catches sight of John, who throws a hand up in greeting.
"I've been looking for you," he says, falling into step beside her. "I have some bad news."
Her heartbeat races as, for the split second before John continues, she considers the possibilities. Ronon's become sick, they've discovered Michael's base and found Teyla's son, dead, Michael has contacted Atlantis to—
"Teyla, Sam thinks it might be best if you stay in your quarters for awhile." John pauses and runs his hand over the back of his neck, "It's just, there's no way we can be sure Michael didn't do something to you, didn't mess with your head somehow that could make you act against your will—
"You suspect I am involved?" Teyla interrupts quietly.
"I— it's standard procedure," he says, still obviously trying to soften the blow. "I'm sorry. We'll figure this thing out as soon as we can, okay?"
"I understand," Teyla says truthfully, "And I am not upset, John," she lies. "You are simply doing what must be done to protect your city." John looks relieved, and Teyla wonders how he can listen to her words and overlook the way her fists are clenched, and the hint of bitterness in her voice. To her, it feels as though she is being mistrusted for all the wrong reasons—for having been a victim, for being an outsider, for not having been able to rescue herself—rather than for suspicious activities since she has returned. She doesn't want to doubt that her friends in Atlantis can learn from what's happening to them, the way her people try to learn from everything, both good and bad—but it's hard to ignore the evidence in front of her. She wonders how much more they will have to endure before they finally find out what is happening or choose to strengthen themselves in ways that cannot be undermined.
When they reach her quarters, Teyla sees that there is already a stone-faced marine standing silently outside her door. John greets the man with confidence, and tells her that he is one of his most trusted soldiers, but this is comforting to John, not to her.
Even with her door closed, it is impossible for Teyla to forget that on the other side of it is a guard who was not placed there to protect her. Before Michael, she doesn't remember ever having found the experience of being angry enjoyable, but then again, she'd had many outlets for releasing that emotion before it became too much to control.
After Teyla's third attempt to meditate is disrupted by her inability to clear her mind of distractions, it occurs to her that she hasn't truly felt like herself physically for a very long time. Teyla stands and decides to truly test the limits of her body, starting by facing her bed and resting her palms flat atop it and slowly stretching each leg out behind her in turn. The pull of skin and muscle across her torso doesn't aggravate her injury, and it's only when she bows her shoulders backwards that she feels a slight burning feeling.
Teyla shuts her eyes and visualizes herself healthy and whole. She starts instinctively moving as she'd done in her dark cell—half-gestures, stilted motions restricted by the narrow walls she can still see against her eyelids. These cause little to no pain, and she speeds up her movements, imagining her center of gravity shifting back to where it should be.
She pauses in a lunge that she could never have performed pregnant, one arm angled behind her, the other holding steady across her face. Teyla pictures herself holding her Bantos rods and adjusts her stance to one of attack, not defense.
When she opens her eyes, her room no longer feels confining in comparison to the image in her mind.
It takes a day and a half for symptoms to surface. John is in the exercise room when Sam radios him with the bad news, and, pushing aside his conflicting feelings about McKay, he heads toward the lab to tell Rodney in person. When he gets there, he's confronted by scurrying lab techs and the abrasive sound of an angry McKay in his natural habitat, which is so comforting in ways John doesn't want to analyze that he stands still and just lets himself observe for a minute or so.
"I don't see movement out there!" Rodney yells through the open door of his office. "Whoever is standing there with nothing to do? I have a sewer leak with your name on it!"
"'John' is a really common name, Rodney," he says, strolling into Rodney's office like old times. "I'm sure you can find someone else to punish."
"What are you— Oh," Rodney says with dawning comprehension. "Ronon?"
"Dr. Kanjula," John says, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "I'm sorry, Rodney. He's deteriorating fast, too. Jennifer's already trying a treatment that's had a little success in for some Pegasus natives, but she says it tends to only work when the person is a lot less sick than he already is."
"Well, shit," Rodney says, his understated reaction somehow holding as much weight as if he'd gone on a furious tangent. "Shit," he repeats, burying his head in his hands. "I should have noticed that lab was in use days before the gate techs did," he says, his voice muffled.
John's acutely aware that he wants to, and probably should try to make Rodney feel better, but he doesn't know how, and everything he can think to do is labeled with a red flag marked 'DANGER' in his head.
"When we find who did this," John says, hoping a hint of humor won't be in horribly bad taste, "I'll spot you in the gateroom and you can shove them through the Stargate into a black hole, okay?"
"It would be an incredibly bad, not to mention selfish idea to dial a singularity from Atlantis," Rodney says immediately. He looks up wearing a hint of the self-satisfied smile he gets when he comes up with a brilliant idea. "Can we strap them to an overloading naquadah reactor and drop them through a space gate?"
"It's a deal," John says, and the smile they share is almost, but not quite, like old times.
Rodney's finally gotten used to trusting his armpits to hold his weight, instead of putting all the stress of walking on his wrists and, well, tensing up his whole upper body, really. He still hates crutches, even if it's a little fun to be able to take such big 'steps' in the wide-open space of the gateroom. There's a big difference between reaching that level of trust when it comes to walking across rooms and down hallways versus attempting stairs, however.
"Dr. McKay?" Chuck's voice floats down to him from the control room balcony, and when Rodney looks up, it finally registers to him just how far up it is. He's not looking forward to making it up there on crutches, since this time if he falls there's no Ancient device to keep him from hurting himself.
"We still haven't found the sabotaged code affecting the transporters yet," Rodney admits, frowning as he looks at the wide stairs. "The one on your level has stopped working."
"You weren't thinking of coming up here on crutches, were you?" Chuck sounds worried, a little dubious, but not mocking. "I mean, right now?"
"Yes, now. It's not like there's a railing for the partially disabled," Rodney says, though he knows friendly concern when he hears it from a fellow Canadian.
"Wait—I could spot you," Chuck suggests, jogging around to the top of the stairs. He seems to take Rodney's expression as directed at himself, because he adds, "Either that, or I can call Dr. Keller to ask for medical assistance?"
"Oh, all right," Rodney says. "No need to make threats." Chuck doesn't even bother with a triumphant grin, which to Rodney seems slightly suspicious. By the time they're half-way up, Rodney starts really wishing OSHA standards counted for more in the Pegasus galaxy. A quiet but insistent alarm starts to sound at one of the workstations, interrupting this thought.
"Got it!" the other gate technician says, loudly enough that he and Chuck can hear her from the stairway. Rodney thinks it's the brunette he recognizes, but can never remember the name of. He starts mounting the stairs a little faster, ignoring the burning feeling in his arms.
"Anomalous reading in the puddlejumper bay," she reports a minute later. Rodney looks across to where she's standing, trying to see the look on her face, but the angle is all wrong. He's about to demand specifics when Chuck calls out to her from behind him.
"Amelia—what exactly does it say?"
"Static pressure overload, Jumper Five," she says. Rodney's biceps ache, but he powers up the last three stairs and makes his way over to the console faster than is probably safe. Amelia taps a key to display the error and its accompanying information on the screen behind them. "I've never seen this error before… What does it—"
"Each jumper is like a big battery," Rodney interrupts before she can finish her question, turning to examine the readout. "By regulating and converting the waste energy they emit back into fuel, they can remain operational almost indefinitely. It would be doing this all the time, otherwise."
"Dr. McKay—that's the jumper Lt. Kemp had been using to fly Ronon and SGA-4 to MR7-660," Chuck tells him.
Rodney looks at him sharply. "So, it's probably sitting in the middle of the bay where anyone could access it?" He hooks the end of a crutch onto the leg of a nearby chair to roll it over, and sits.
"Yes. Do… Do you think this is related to—"
"The armory and the transporters? Yes." Rodney doesn't want to think about his scientist and his teammate, both waiting in the infirmary to see if the former's symptoms worsen and the latter to develop some. He taps on his radio, simultaneously typing commands into the computer in front of him one-handed to waste less time. "Sam? I think we have a problem. Control room," he says, answering her question before she can ask it. He changes frequencies. "Colonel Sheppard?"
"Problem with the puddlejumpers—can you meet me in the control room with my computer? It's on the desk in my quarters." Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney can see Chuck and—Amy? Alia? pulling up data on a nearby console, presumably to examine Jumper Five's recent flights.
"Why don't you have it with you?" Sheppard asks in his ear, and Rodney has to stop and think for a few minutes to figure out what he's talking about; his mind has already leapt ahead to the next twenty things he needs to figure out.
"Because it's hard enough to climb stairs on crutches without having a laptop strapped to my back! I didn't think I'd need it," Rodney snaps. "And before you ask, the transporter's down, so you'll need to use the one for the lower level." He shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath, and it's then that he realizes that John hasn't been to his quarters since Rodney kissed him. He feels a headache coming on. The longer it takes for John to respond, the more Rodney wants to say something, but he can't think of anything that won't endanger his chances of getting his laptop.
"You climbed those stairs on crutches?" John finally asks.
"One of your puddlejumpers has decided it wants to explode. Are you going to bring me my laptop, or what?" Rodney says, aggravated and blunt.
"Yes, Rodney," John says, drawing out the syllables in the most annoying way possible. "Like you just said, the transporters aren't really working very well right now. I'll get there when I get there."
"McKay?" Carter is walking over to stand beside him. Her hair looks wet—he guesses she probably just got out of the shower—and for a brief second, Rodney really misses the simplicity of pining over her. It was never this maddening.
"Great! Thanks! McKay out," Rodney singsongs into his radio, turning it down drastically and swiveling his chair to face Sam.
"It's getting worse," she says without preamble. "I have Chuck running a few scans, but we've already noticed low levels of radiation consistent with fuel core bleedout. Whatever's causing the overload, it's happening way too fast. We need to seal off the bay."
"What about the other jumpers? If this thing goes off…"
"We don't have enough time to check each one for the same problem if we don't know what that problem is, yet," Sam points out. Rodney nods.
"Activating field," he says. As he does so, the transporter doors at the lower level open, and he looks down, expecting to see John. Instead, he sees a marine—with Rodney's laptop. Rodney looks away from the security feed recording he'd been examining and pulls his hands away from their task of pulling up the Ancient database's entries on puddlejumpers, turning his radio back up and tapping it on. There are two possible reasons why a marine would be delivering his computer rather than Sheppard, and Rodney is really kind of hoping the answer will be the more embarrassing one.
"Colonel, please tell me you sent a grunt into my quarters without my permission," he says, unhappy with the balance of fright versus frustration he can hear in his own voice.
"You know I wouldn't do that," John replies in an altogether too cheerful tone.
"Well you can forget the hero routine because I've sealed off the jumper bay," Rodney says, pitching his words loud enough for Carter to hear. John is so busted.
"John, how close are you to the control room? I'd like your input on this," Sam says calmly, right on cue.
"Oh, my God! You're in there already, aren't you?" Rodney says. He jerks in his seat, upset but determined to figure out how to fix the problem before John gets it in his head to fly the thing clear of the city.
"Yes, and we're wasting time, so…"
"Can you interface with the jumper or is it too damaged?" Sam asks, her words barely registering over the rush of tasks, worry, and anger competing for dominance in Rodney's brain.
"Yeah, I've got a HUD—"
"You're inside it?" Rodney asks, knocking over one of his crutches as he rolls his chair over to the next console; he slams into the edge so abruptly that he gets a little dizzy.
"Kind of hard to figure out what's wrong with it by staring at it from ten feet away," John says. "I did call you to tell you I was headed in, but you didn't respond," he adds, and Rodney's fist clenches uselessly as he remembers turning down the volume. Out of the fifty things Rodney really wants to say right now, only one of them is helpful.
"Open the crystal tray, then," he orders. Beside him, Carter glances over, and Rodney locks eyes with her. "The security feed is blank," he says bleakly, without keying his mic. He gestures to the display on the monitor he just moved away from. "It's been recording shots of the ceiling since three this morning."
"The biometric sensors aren't picking up anything unusual," Sam says, pointing. Rodney can't help the way his eyes stray from the grim look on her face to the single, stationary dot in the jumper bay. When he looks back at her, Sam nods, acknowledging his unspoken conclusion.
"One of the crystals looks grey," John says over the open channel. "And I can't get the computer to start converting the emissions back to fuel again. The whole thing is reacting very sluggishly."
"Sheppard," Rodney says into his radio. "I have a plan for containment, but you have to leave the jumper bay first." Actually, he has a theory and no way to test it, but he's not wrong all that often, and he needs to get John out of there now. He snaps his fingers at Chuck and points to one of the storage lockers they had installed beneath the sensor console.
"Containment? No, no—you can fix this, right? Just tell me what to do."
"Sheppard," Rodney repeats, shooting a glance at Sam and hoping she doesn't jump in and make it an order—because he doesn't want his options to be either 'lose John in an explosion' or 'lose John to a court-martial.' "This isn't theory anymore. It can't be a coincidence, not—"
The rest of Rodney's sentence is cut off by John's voice, angry and loud in his ear. "That's why we need to fix this now, or we'll be back here tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and pretty soon we'll be out of puddlejumpers," John breaks off and his voice loses its hard edges when he speaks again. "I like the puddlejumpers, Rodney. I want to keep them all. So—tell me what to do."
He's about to respond when Sam calls his name.
"Rodney—I'm pretty sure we can use your shielding project to rig the city's force fields to wrap around the jumper, but I can't do it from here, and I'll need to know exactly where it is—"
"—and the security camera is pointed at the ceiling," he finishes for her. "I'll get Sheppard to adjust it; go," Rodney says, flashing her a look of gratitude over the tray of Ancient crystals Chuck had retrieved for him.
"I'll stay in radio contact," Sam says over her shoulder as she jogs down the stairs and into the transporter. Rodney taps on his mic right as he closes his other hand around the crystal he's been looking for.
"Colonel, Sam needs to see what's going on; the camera on the north-west wall was tampered with, and we need you to fix it." I also need you to get the hell out of there before I decide to make myself a hypocrite, Rodney adds silently. The edges of the replacement crystal are biting into his palm, but he can barely feel them, too preoccupied with the idea that's quickly gaining shape in his mind. Behind him, he can hear the gate techs talking in low voices about the levels of radiation directly around the jumper as a new alarm starts to sound.
"Nice try, McKay."
"Damnit, John, I'm not fucking with you. There are two options here, two. We contain the explosion or I come down there and replace the crystal. There is no third option!" Rodney hisses into his mic, barely audible in the control room, he hopes, but perfectly clear in John's earpiece. The resulting silence would feel gratifying in any other situation.
"I'm fixing the camera," John says, voice so flat he might have been talking about a bad golf score. Then, lower, and with more emotion, "Never rule out the third option, Rodney."
On hearing this, Rodney leans down and closes a fist around his fallen crutch, yanking it towards him and up as he grabs at its mate. Tucking the crystal into a pocket, he stands up and shoves his chair back and out of the way with his good leg, earning himself an audience.
"You," he says, pointing to the woman, haste stripping any sign of politeness that might have lingered in his voice. "Lower the force field on the jumper bay door in five minutes and keep it open for another five. You," he shifts his attention to Chuck. "Radio Colonel Carter and tell her I have an idea and will contact her in ten minutes. If it doesn't work, I'll let her know." Rodney starts for the stairs.
"Dr. McKay!" Chuck's voice has a note of command Rodney's never heard before, and it almost makes him turn around. Almost. "The radiation won't reach unsafe levels for another twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes, but prolonged exposure—"
Rodney reaches the top step, turns around, and gingerly leans over to get on his knees, twisting his body around again and crossing his left leg over his right, crutches in his lap.
"I'll be fine," Rodney says, less harshly than he wants to, but Chuck's worry is justified, whether he knows it or not. "Go do your job, I'll do mine." Then, he takes a deep breath and starts sliding down the stairs like a toddler. Now would have been a great time to have access to a railing.
John is pacing, but the limited space in the back compartment of the jumper doesn't give him much room. Eight steps to the bulkhead, seven to the rear hatch. Three more to stand in front of the crystal tray and stare at the burned-out grey impostor surrounded by healthy, clear white crystals. From his earlier mental connection to the jumper, he knows if he removes it, there will be a massive release of pressure, resulting in an explosion that would most likely take out the rest of the bay, not that he'd be conscious—or alive—to know for sure.
McKay's radio silence is deafening, and John fights to keep his mind on the situation. As soon as Rodney had asked him to fix the camera, he'd gone to do it, despite his sarcastic comment that implied otherwise. Rodney's threat to show up, crutches and all—that has him worried. The longer he waits, the broader his steps, and soon it's seven steps to the bulkhead, six to the hatch, then five.
He doesn't want to lose Rodney, and it occurs to him that there's no way Rodney doesn't feel at least the same level of dismay at the idea of losing him, especially after John's own threat about a third option. But, damn it, John hasn't changed at all! It's Rodney who went and added a whole new set of parameters to their friendship, and it's Rodney's fault that John can't seem to get past them. He can't remember ever feeling introspective in a situation like this before, and that's easy to blame on Rodney too. He feels the burden of wondering what to say if he really does have to fly the jumper out and away, not to mention how to say it, now that he knows the words will mean something more than a simple goodbye to Rodney.
Like a friend loves another friend.
John starts pacing again, tries to push his mind into the reluctant computer again with no luck. He keeps remembering Rodney's bemused, weak voice from the infirmary, when McKay had almost, almost ascended. 'You love me?' The shock and delirium sound more like excitement and incredulity in his memory now, inseparably linked to the feeling of Rodney's lips on his. John's starting to worry that he is becoming obsessed when a thought crosses his mind—that Rodney's blind, desperate reach for him might have been John's last kiss. He finds he's strangely okay with that, considering the sincerity in Rodney's confession afterwards; comparing that moment to the fight he'd had with Nancy before leaving for Afghanistan leaves a sharp, confusing contrast.
His internal clock is telling John that something has gone wrong—it's taking the others too long to contact him. He'd told himself a short while ago that McKay and Carter had ten minutes to come up with something before he would call for a status report and inform them of his plan, and a check of his watch confirms that eight minutes have passed since then. His circuit of the jumper leaves him standing at the rear hatch, and that's when he hears something that sounds a lot like the doors opening from across the room. John can feel his heart rate pick up as he walks down the hatch. There are no new noises for twenty-three seconds, and he spares a thought to note that the number's prime before he says something, angry and rough.
"Damn it, McKay! That better not be you!"
"Oh please, Colonel, it's not like you have a monopoly on stupid decisions in this galaxy," comes the exasperated reply. It really shouldn't sound welcome to John, but it does. He powers forward to see Rodney fumbling at the door of the supply closet.
"What the hell are you doing?" John only has to think about how much he doesn't want to fly away from this conversation to make his tone of voice sound irritated instead of concerned. Concerned wasn't going to persuade Rodney McKay to get the hell out of here and let John do his job. "Why didn't you just radio, instead?"
"Right now, I'm trying to find the tablet computer and cables Radek always leaves in here," Rodney says in an inappropriately calm voice. "There's uh, some interference. The radio wouldn't work," he adds, but his body language tells John that he's lying.
Lying or not, they're still in a crisis, so John jogs over to help. Together, they wrestle the door open and Rodney holds it steady while John goes in for the computer. As soon as McKay sees the machine in John's hand, he turns his back and starts hop-swinging toward the jumper in the center of the bay.
"You stay here and tell me what to do," John orders. Rodney's already ten feet away but John can still hear the sigh Rodney lets out before restarting his progress toward the jumper. "McKay!" he shouts. It's no use.
"You really want to do this now?" Rodney's voice sounds hollow with the growing distance. "Fine. 'Come back,'" he mimics, pitching his voice higher. Then, in his own voice, "'No.'" Higher, "'Just let me blow myself up and save the city!' 'Not a chance.'"
Despite himself, John starts toward the jumper. For some reason the bitter tone in Rodney's voice at his last few words makes him think of the way McKay had shoved his crutch over in his quarters. He kind of wishes he could see Rodney's face right now.
"Are you coming? All evidence to the contrary, I really don't feel like getting blown up, today, and running is a surprisingly difficult thing to do on crutches," Rodney says over his shoulder.
The next few moments pass in a kind of blur for John, once Rodney admits that they've got less than ten minutes and probably more like five to save the day before the radiation levels become truly deadly. Neither of them speculate on how much time after that they'll have before critical mass, but the look of stark fear on Rodney's face when he admits that there's no way to route around the sabotaged crystal tells John enough.
He puts a gentle hand on Rodney's arm. "Hey, time to go."
Rodney stiffens, his knuckles white on the grip of his crutch and the edge of his computer, and for one crazy moment, John wonders what the harm would be in kissing him, voluntarily. He shakes the thought off. He's not… That's not something he wants (an annoying voice in the back of his mind points out that John's been repeating this particular thought often in the past week), John reminds himself. He's just full of adrenaline, psyching himself back up to where he'll fly toward that hive ship, push that self-destruct button…
"Rodney," John says in a low, quiet voice, and shit, way to hide what's going on in your mind, there, John, he thinks, because Rodney's eyes are wide and blue as they stare into his for a split second before Rodney's turning away to fumble in one of the overhead bins. He reaches for his other crutch and shoves a little at John's shoulder, his hands full of small red discs that look familiar. As John watches, Rodney fiddles with each one until a blinking orange light activates in the center. Then, he shoves them towards John.
"Make a perimeter of the jumper with these—no less than a meter between them—got it?" he says, reaching out to snatch a small object off of the dashboard.
"I need to fly this out of here," John starts to say, but Rodney knows him too well, because after two words he's already objecting loudly and gesturing with snapping fingers for John to hurry. McKay's body language is all impatience and vulnerability as if he expects John to say no and has no clue how to change his mind. And maybe it would have been easier to kiss Rodney and fly off into the exploding horizon, because something about the way Rodney's looking at him compels John to follow him out of the jumper, and that wasn't what he was planning to do at all. He jogs around it, placing the red beacons as Rodney had instructed. It feels wrong to have McKay out of his line of sight, and John hopes that when he rounds the corner in a few seconds, Rodney will already be far enough away that John can avoid all these conflicting feelings and just do his job already.
Knowing each other goes both ways, though, and when John finishes the last placement, it's under Rodney's watchful glare, and an imprecation not to 'even think about it.' Trusting Rodney comes easy, it always has, and as they make their clumsy way away from the jumper, John realizes that while he's distracted by his knowledge of how Rodney feels, Rodney doesn't seem to be at all. There's something really messed up and unfair about this that turns John's more dangerous thoughts on the subject toward safer feelings like anger and resentment.
"Faster would be good," Rodney chants. "I'm not really sure this is going to work…" They continue to stumble forward for a minute or two until McKay stops, resting heavily on his crutches and studying his watch.
"McKay, what—" John is interrupted by a tense shout from Rodney.
"Now, Sam!" Rodney yells into his headset, and there's a flash of light from behind, bright enough to show up on the wall a few feet ahead of them, but strangely, there's no resulting concussion wave, no blast. John turns to look and as he shields his eyes is amazed by what he sees—extending from the floor around the sabotaged jumper is a force field like the ones he's seen stretch around the brig. This one looks almost… thin, though, fluid, but not in a good way.
"I thought the radios—"
Rodney lets go of his crutch long enough to wave his hand dismissively. "I lied," he says, and John is about to ask why when the field around the jumper flickers.
"I don't think it's going to be enough, McKay," Carter says, the stress obvious in her voice. "I wasn't able to boost it to anywhere near the level we need."
Rodney fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a small black object that looks familiar. "There's always plan C," he says, pointing it at the jumper. When he presses down on it, a filmy layer of energy glides smoothly around the ship, adding another layer of protection inside the force field. John realizes with awe that it's the jumper's own shield.
Eleven seconds later (another prime, not that he's counting), there's a brighter flash. It's completely contained by the two shields—everything but the sound of the explosion, which does a pretty good job competing with the roaring sound of John's own heartbeat in his ears.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Rodney is ordered to the infirmary to be checked out. The fact that he knows this is standard procedure after an explosion is somewhat amusing to him, but it becomes less so after Jennifer is called away to an unrelated emergency in another part of the city, leaving him with instructions to wait until her return. At first, he stops to visit Abhijit, Rodney wearing the mask and gloves that protect him from possibly catching the virus that's killing one of his best scientists. Dr. Kanjula is in pretty bad shape by now, and Rodney's not very good company even on days when he's not been almost blown to bits, so by mutual agreement, the visit is short.
Luckily, he's the admin of the entire computer system in Atlantis, or he'd be bored, since his computer was left behind in the jumper bay, and the jumper bay is off-limits. Sam has assigned a team of scientists to do a sort of forensic analysis on the whole room, which, to Rodney's dismay, stupidly includes his tablet, left on the floor near where he and John had stood during the blast.
Rodney gets up, deciding to look for a more comfortable place to pass the time. He starts toward Jennifer's office, nodding his hello at Lorne who says he's heading to Ronon's room for a visit. Rodney breaks into the office easily and settles into the comfortable desk chair he'd commandeered from their impromptu staff meeting the day Ronon and Dr. Kanjula had been exposed to the Hoffan virus. Jennifer's screen saver is predictable, a montage of pictures from her life on Earth, presumably of herself and her friends and relatives. Her desktop picture looks like it might be a puppy, but Rodney covers it with a console window as soon as he can, typing in the command that will show Atlantis as a series of life signs. He's looking for John, and as a consequence of knowing the way John thinks, Rodney's examining all of the instances of a single dot on the screen. The time is 20:38 by the military clock, and that means that everyone, even senior staff, should be paired up with an escort under the curfew.
He sees what looks like a lone dot heading out to the East Pier, but that person meets up with two dots already at the furthest point, and Rodney's pretty sure there isn't any sabotage going on there, at least not of the kind he's looking for. He checks the area by the makeshift armory, but there are four dots separated into two groups, presumably guarding it, and the program that looks for John's transponder and lights him up just for Rodney doesn't show him there. He's promised himself that he's not going to plug in the command that just finds John right off the bat, because that's a lot closer to violating Sheppard's privacy than what he is doing, even if what he is doing could be done by almost any of the senior science staff.
Rodney checks the living quarters, and sure, there are a lot of single dots in rooms by themselves, but that's to be expected. To be expected everywhere but one room, a room Rodney checks just because he thinks he probably should. He doesn't expect to see anything anomalous.
What he does see is one dot at Teyla's quarters, instead of the two that are supposed to be there.
The pleasing darkness of his ship adds contentment to Michael's anticipation as he walks from the control room to the guarded hallway in the heart of the hive. He's glad that he is safe aboard a ship again, rather than boxed in at one of his planetary bases; this is much safer, he can feel it, especially for what's about to happen. He can hear faint noises of distress even before he activates the door to see the figure lying flat on the low table in the center of the room.
"You are no longer needed," Michael says to the hybrid standing beside the table; it immediately starts to back away.
"You are wrong," Teyla says to him defiantly, though her voice is weak. "Alynn, do not leave me, please," she calls out, her wrist twisting in her restraints in an attempt to reach out.
"Go!" Michael snaps to the female hybrid pausing in the doorway. He turns back to Teyla without pausing to see if he is obeyed—his assurance is hardwired into their genetic makeup.
"Michael," Teyla says between gasps. "Please, you must release these bindings. You know nothing of human birth! If you want us to live—"
He steps closer. "Do you need the table at a different angle?"
She cries out, the noise drawn out and anguished, and his eyes are drawn to the way her legs are tensed in their restraints. Her ankles are bleeding, her feet wet from whatever fluids she has already released as a part of giving birth. Michael fights with his anger; he dislikes being unprepared. His original plan had been for the doctor's clone to deliver her child, but Carson had been weak. Telling him about his plans for Teyla would have made Beckett defiant and useless.
"I need to be able to move!" she screams at him, capturing his attention again. "Our children are not strong, he cannot come out on his own," Teyla adds, looking him directly in his eyes. "Without me, he will not survive, and all of your plans will come to nothing." Her body starts to tense again, but she holds his gaze, grimacing from exertion, her face streaked with sweat.
"He is too important for that," Michael says, stepping forward to release her.
"Yes," she pants, pulling up her knees and sitting up, supporting her weight on her shaking arms. "He is."
Michael steps back to watch and wait, fascinated by the differences between this woman and the one he'd fostered for over a year.
When Rodney calls him from the infirmary, John is shocked and angry, accusing Rodney of turning his fear of nearly dying in the puddlejumper explosion into unfounded suspicion. He tells Rodney that he is turning his back on his own science—that the principle of Occam's Razor should be enough for Rodney to simply trust Teyla and try to raise her on the radio, so John wouldn't have to listen to Rodney's accusations. To his surprise, Rodney didn't get upset. He simply asked John a simple question.
"Does your guard have the gene?"
John's silence was enough for Rodney.
"Believe me, Sheppard, the last thing I want to believe is that Teyla is responsible. It had occurred to me that maybe she knocked out the guard and planned to persuade you or Sam to let her go looking for Torren. But—Occam's Razor, right? The simplest explanation is that she's behind this. All of it."
"So, where is she?" John asks. Rodney knows him well enough that they can skip the obvious; John has already activated a military-only silent alarm that transmits via their radios. All he has to do now is head for a computer console so he can relay the frequency for an encrypted channel—and Teyla's location.
"She's removed her transponder," Rodney says. "Give me a minute…"
Rodney tells John the location of the non ATA carriers who are traveling by themselves in the city—one entering the mess hall, one in the hallway that leads to the infirmary, and one in the jumper bay. John is already heading for the jumper bay when Rodney tells him his plan for the infirmary.
She moves quickly, knowing that her appearance in the hallways will register no matter how stealthy she is able to be. Without the benefit of a life-signs detector, she has to rely on her senses and training, even though she knows that particular training is not a memory that truly belongs to her body. Teyla is glad that the young man who had been chosen to guard her is not someone she remembers. He had not given her much of a challenge, which meant that she had not needed to hurt him in order to incapacitate him.
She knows she needs to hurry, as her modifications to Michael's computer virus will soon need to be updated in order to prevent lasting damage—she does not share his wish to see the city of the Ancestors destroyed. In her view, it is the population of Atlantis that is in need of adjustment. They still see themselves as citizens of their own galaxy, but treat hers as a place to experiment without consequences. She and Michael had agreed on that, though she had fought him for many months when he had informed her of his intentions. If he had been capable of seeing that his own flaws were similar to what he objected to so strongly in the Lanteans, however, she never would have been able to twist his plan to meet her own design.
Teyla can feel her body shaking ever so slightly; she had recognized the symptoms of deterioration the night before, but had been unable to come up with an acceptable reason to go to the infirmary without alerting Dr. Keller to her condition. It's only a matter of time before Jennifer will insist on conducting the full physical that Teyla had managed to avoid for over a week, and once she does, Teyla's deception will be revealed. There's no way to simulate pregnancy in a way that would fool a doctor from Atlantis, after all. The serum's masking effects were only intended to last a week, and she had intended to barter for her life (and Carson's as well, once she'd learned about him) with the stabilizing injection she'd managed to steal from Michael. Teyla had been surprised to have avoided suspicion for so long, particularly after the events she'd set into motion on the first day began to create serious problems for the city.
The main room of the infirmary is clear, and Teyla is able to enter the dimly lit space without being detected. She drops to a crouch when the nurse on duty exits Ronon's room—it had been hers, when she'd first arrived—and she watches as the nurse yawns and enters the office area. Teyla crosses to the same door quickly and pushes it open, shutting it quickly once she's inside to block out the light from the main infirmary. She needs her eyes to adjust to the near blackness if she has any hope of achieving her goal quietly. She sees a shape lying on the bed, and Teyla watches for a few minutes until she is convinced that Ronon is asleep. The injection is hidden at the farthest corner of the room from the door. She hopes she can last a few days more without using it, but she doubts that she can continue to evade detection for much longer. It's all she has to bargain with.
Teyla's fingers close around the metal outcropping in the wall where she'd hidden the vial, but it is gone.
"Looking for something?" Ronon says, his voice echoing in the enclosed space. The shock of being discovered shakes her, and her pre-determined excuse sounds contrived even to her own ears.
"Ronon—I did not mean to wake you. This is unusual, I know, but I remembered a trinket I had with me when I'd been rescued; it had been sewn into my vest," she says, the half-truth meant to lend credibility. "I could not sleep, and it was something I used to calm myself while I was with Michael. I fear I must have let it fall in my anxiousness to return to my room—"
"It's not your room," Ronon says flatly.
Teyla stands, straight and proud. "I do not know what you mean."
"Yes, you do," he says. A light flickers on, and Teyla sees Ronon stretched out on his bed, holding up the vial she was looking for. Major Lorne is standing behind him, his weapon aimed at her, his eyes cold.
"Are you going to fight me, Teyla?" he asks her, reluctance meeting resolve in his voice.
"I have no wish to hurt anyone," Teyla says truthfully. It is a struggle to hold herself still when her words trigger the expected fury from Ronon. What surprises her is the distinctive sound of his blaster charging—as well as the speed at which he is able to throw himself toward the end of his bed, despite the prone position he'd been in. Ronon balances himself on his knees with both hands holding his blaster leveled directly at her head.
"Ronon!" Lorne calls out. When Ronon doesn't respond, Teyla sees Lorne turn away and touch a hand to his ear, clearly calling for backup. That's when she notices the glint of her vial in between Ronon's fingers and the blanket, close to the edge of the bed.
"You choose," Ronon says in a dangerously soft voice. "Fast or slow?" His fingers separate slowly, letting the vial slide forward a little.
Teyla knows that Ronon intends to kill her; she's seen this look on his face before, and while she knows those memories aren't hers, she can't deny that he never once showed mercy at those times. She wants to explain about the virus, that it has the potential to destroy the city if she doesn't stop it in time, but instead, she chooses the one thing she hopes will sway him.
"Ronon, that could save Carson's life as well as mine," she says, looking up from Ronon's thick fingers and the precious vial between them to the furious look on his face. He smiles, and it's the exact opposite of comforting.
"Fast, then. Good choice," Ronon says. He takes aim, but just as he's about to fire, Teyla sees the door fly open to reveal a group of armed marines and Colonel Carter brandishing? a Wraith weapon. Carter fires at her without hesitating, and just as the stunner hits, Ronon fires, his shot deflected at the last moment by some force she doesn't see.
After Rodney had gone over to warn Lorne, he'd gone to the console nearest Ronon's room and started to look for any signs of tampering. He remembers waiting his turn to visit Teyla nearby, and he's pretty sure Ronon's in the same room she was in. If she really is behind the problems on Atlantis, she had to have initiated them here; he knows she had still been in the infirmary the night the armory doors stopped working. Rodney blocks out exactly why that night is so memorable to him, and instead, opens the crystal tray, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
What he finds is a crystal with a strange modification to it—it looks remarkably like a transponder, nestled inside the crystal, with a delicate optical wire threaded through the crystal from the inside of the transponder. Looking more closely, Rodney sees that there's a bit of red liquid on the device, and he realizes with a mixture of disgust and fascination that it's blood. Teyla's blood. She carried the computer virus—it has to be a virus, for all that it behaves like no virus Rodney's ever seen—into the city in her own body.
He wonders if maybe, just maybe, she's been subjected to some kind of conditioning that caused her to do this one act of sabotage… but that doesn't work, because he's here looking for evidence purely because she's missing from her guarded room. If she has been trained in some way, whatever she's looking for in either the jumper bay or the infirmary is as important if not more important than the device he's holding in his hands right now.
Rodney wraps the crystal in a nearby towel, moves as quickly as he can back to Jennifer's office, and pulls his tablet computer from his backpack, more grateful than ever that he modified them to be portable. Logging in, he restarts his search program, telling it to start at the infirmary. He doesn't expect that it help him unravel the mess that's been put into motion, but he may be able to find where the initial damaging commands come from, and prevent the next one.
Sam had left the containment preparations up to John. Initially, he isn't sure what he wants to do. If there is a completely reasonable—or mostly reasonable—explanation for Teyla's behavior, throwing her into the brig or locking her up would be inhumane, especially after all she's been through. If she's been somehow brainwashed by Michael, though, she will be completely untrustworthy, and John knows she's a fearsome fighter. In that case, the brig might be the only truly safe place to keep her, for all that she hasn't been outwardly threatening. But there's a brilliant and talented doctor who's busy dying in an infirmary room who might beg to differ, and John feels personally responsible for his and Ronon's predicament.
That Teyla could share the blame for that at all is baffling, and John's not sure what to think. He readies the brig, though, and looks into a force field that would keep her contained in one of the infirmary rooms until they are sure of how to deal with her.
When Sam radios him that she's on her way down to the brig with Teyla, John steels himself for the worst, but what he's faced with is an unconscious, vulnerable-looking Teyla whose limp body triggers all of John's protective instincts. Sam orders him to post a guard and let her sleep it off in the sparse barred room, and while John's instincts are screaming at him to rebel, he reins himself in, watches her sleep for ten minutes, and then leaves to find out what the fuck just happened to his teammate and by extension, his city.
The truth is a lot more horrifying than he'd expected, by virtue of his unwitting role in it. In Ronon's room in the infirmary, Sam explains to John, Ronon, and Rodney that Jennifer had come to her after their impromptu staff meeting with a confession to make.
"Teyla had begged her not to do a full body scan or a thorough examination," Sam tells them. "She had just fought off an unknown poison, she'd borne a child in extremely adverse conditions—or so Jennifer expected—and she was telling Jennifer that all she wanted was to feel like her body was hers again, that she had the right to refuse to be touched. Under the circumstances," Sam says, "I can understand how Jennifer was fooled. She's going over the scan we just performed on Teyla's unconscious body, and there's no sign she's ever been pregnant."
John digests this with a rising sense of dread as there's a knock on the door. It's Jennifer.
"Here's the new report on the telomeres I just performed," she says in a stilted voice. "Only about three in a hundred are intact, but it only takes one whole one to diagnose this: she's a clone."
"Wake her up," Ronon says, pulling on his boots. He's gone over four days without a sign of infection; no one they've ever encountered has gotten sick over eighty-four hours after being infected, but he's already told John that Sam has asked him to stay a few extra nights, just in case this strain is different. He wouldn't put it past Michael to have created a special version just for Atlantis.
"I'd rather not," Sam says. "Teyla will be a tough break, and she'll know we will want the real Teyla back as soon as possible. She has leverage over us, and I'd like to put her in as little a position of power as we can manage. Sleeping on the bench or the floor in the brig is at least a first step."
Sam convinces John and Ronon that they should wait, and he can tell it's as tough a sell for Ronon as it is for him. Jennifer asks to speak to Ronon as the rest of them leave his room, and John excuses himself, sensing tension between the two of them that he has nothing to do with. It's past eleven, but John knows he won't sleep. He feels disoriented and disconnected, like the city just did a barrel roll around him as he stood stationary. John steps into a transporter and picks his destination without really paying attention; only after the doors open again does he realize it was just as likely not to have worked at all. It's this thought that really tips him over from disconnected to angry—someone's fucking with his city, turning his life upside down and shaking it and John's freefalling without a parachute, staring into nothingness. Atlantis is unreliable thanks to the clone; Ronon has been trapped, healthy, in a hospital room; the real Teyla is still out there somewhere, waiting for them; and then there's Rodney—Rodney, who remains exactly as he ever was, except for the knowledge John now has. Knowledge that changes everything.
He's walking faster now, the corridors a tangled jumble of lights and fixtures, as faceless as the few pairs of people he's passed so far. It takes two of his men passing him with a respectful "Good night, sir," for John to realize he walking to crew quarters on autopilot. John is sure he won't be able to sleep, and the thought of reading or even watching something seems far too passive for his mindset right now. He stops along a stretch of wall with no doors and leans up against the hallway, rubbing at his face with the back of one hand. John slides the rest of his arm across his forehead and buries his nose in the crook of his elbow, trying to tell himself he's tired. It doesn't work, and when he pulls his arm away, he brushes it against his lips, completely accidentally.
It reminds him of Rodney.
John swears under his breath. No matter what he does, he can't erase those seconds from his memory. They keep popping up, again and again, and really, John was just fine with self-imposed celibacy until Rodney had to go and kiss him. It's like John's body doesn't understand that it was a misfire; that there's not going to be any follow through.
When John pushes off the wall and starts walking again, all he's managed to do is add an undercurrent of arousal to the anger. He should be feeling glad he's alive, but this, even this thought is tainted now, because John's pretty sure that he would have actually kissed Rodney, if the next thing he was going to do would be to fly the compromised jumper out of the city.
John tells himself he can and will find his Teyla—their Teyla; that the time they've lost thanks to the clone will be made up for somehow. He has no choice but to accept the fact that Ronon's not quite out of the woods yet, and, okay, Ronon's idea of the perfect friend in this scenario is someone John absolutely will not become, but he's done what he can, and he'll keep doing that until Ronon's back at his side for their morning run. He hates the idea of his city being endangered from within—and he has done, is doing, and always will do everything he in his power to prevent this. Everything that makes him feel safe seems to be spinning out of balance, Rodney included… and even there, John is trying to be a good friend, despite knowing that 'friend' isn't what Rodney wants.
But, damn it, he draws the line at feeling uncomfortable in his own mind, and that—that is McKay's fault.
John is at Rodney's door three minutes later, angry and a little vengeful. He's not sure what he's going to do, only that he doesn't want to be the only one out of the two of them left feeling off-balance and wanting. He knows he's in a dangerous mood when his lips curl up into a smile at the thought of the trouble Rodney has to go through just to answer his door. Especially since John's pretty sure he could get in whether McKay wanted him to or not, if he pushed the city to let him.
"Sheppard?" Rodney says when the door finally opens. He sounds surprised and weary, dressed in boxers and an inside-out t-shirt under a ratty grey robe. "You couldn't have called?"
"No," John says, easily sliding past Rodney's body into the room, leaving him facing the empty doorway, blinking.
"Um, okay," Rodney says, shuffling himself around after keying the door shut. He looks confused, and John crosses his arms against the feelings of guilt that try to seep through at seeing Rodney like this, tired and still wounded.
"Do you think about me?" John asks, his voice hard and sharp, demanding an immediate answer.
"What?" Rodney says, sounding utterly lost now. "Do I— In what context? Do I think about you dying? Is this about today? I—"
"You know what context, Rodney. You created the context."
Rodney shakes his head and opens his mouth, probably to object again, but then he closes it again and looks at John intently for a full minute before looking away. Taking his crutches into one large hand, Rodney hops over to brace them against the wall next to his desk, leaning back with his right hip leaning against on the desk for balance. He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
"What do you want, John?" he asks quietly.
John's at a loss. He came to yell at Rodney, to make him admit that he'd crossed a line that should never have been crossed. He came to force Rodney to acknowledge his mistake. He thinks he came for an apology—but that isn't what he wants, not really.
John wants to be able to forget that Rodney's lips are soft. John wants to stop remembering what was going through his mind when Rodney's mouth had dragged against his: that he'd wondered what would happen if he didn't pull away. He wants to stop knowing that about himself.
In a crazy moment of understanding, he realizes that this is his one chance to find out what would have happened. On an impulse, John strides over to Rodney, who is drawing himself up straighter against the wall as though he's bracing for an attack. Without slowing, John steps close and reaches out to brace his hands against the wall on either side of Rodney's head. Rodney's precarious position means he has no leverage to push John away, and John takes a minute to stare at Rodney, holding all of the anger he's been feeling close to the surface where Rodney can see it.
Rodney doesn't turn his head away (but neither had John, the first time), and John shuts his eyes to block out the comprehension that flashes on Rodney's face as soon as he starts to lean in. He only means to press his lips to Rodney's in imitation of that other kiss—just a quick brush of his mouth as retaliation, and then he'll pull back and walk away, leaving Rodney to wonder instead of John.
Instead, John finds that Rodney's lips are as soft as he remembers, and Rodney starts to respond after a second or two, tilting his head to a slightly better angle and parting his lips a little. It's better than before. It feels like testing boundaries, incremental shifts of pressure and movement.
It's then that John realizes the flaw in his plan. He'd been the one to break away, the first time. The first time, he hadn't wanted it. Rodney does, and he's kissing back the way he'd kissed John before, with light brushes of his lips before one of them breaks away to come back for another. Each kiss is slow and warm and would seem almost chaste but for the heat that's seeping through John's veins, desire chasing adrenaline.
John tries to pull away—he's replaced the memory, and clearly he's made his point, but Rodney follows him, his free hand reaching out to rest lightly on John's waist. He traces John's upper lip with the tip of his tongue, and suddenly it's not about memories or retaliation anymore. It's about heat and sensation, and John opens his mouth to meet him, needing to know what Rodney tastes like, needing to learn everything so that he can get past this and not be left to wonder.
John sways forward, and Rodney's hand tightens at John's waist when John slides his right hand down from the wall and into Rodney's hair. He was already half hard from the languid kisses, but Rodney arches into him when John's fingertips brush against the nape of his neck, and John can feel Rodney's cock through his pants, hard against his hip. John's panic wars with his arousal for a minute, but it's been so long since he's been wanted, and John tells himself it's a fluke, that he's just responding like this because he misses kissing so much it doesn't matter who it is. Then Rodney sucks lightly on his lower lip and runs his hand around to rub at the small of John's back, and John groans, thrusting his hips against Rodney's instinctively.
"Oh, God," Rodney says, his voice low and breathless, nothing at all like the way he sounds in a crisis. John thrusts again and holds himself there, so close that the edges of Rodney's ugly robe are brushing against John's hips. Somewhere in the back of his mind, John's still trying to convince himself that this is nothing more than data collection, insurance against future involuntary fantasies, but most of him just wants to see what other responses he can coax out of Rodney.
Rodney's right leg is shaking, and John puts his left hand on Rodney's shoulder to nudge him closer to the desk, mindful of Rodney's injured ankle. Rodney breaks their kiss to rest his forehead on John's shoulder as he closes his arm tight around John's upper arm and hops sideways once to rest half-sitting, half-standing against the edge of it. John's still standing very close with his hands on Rodney's shoulders, and Rodney reaches up and pulls him into an intense kiss, one hand holding the back of John's head, the other at his jaw line, broad thumb sweeping up to tug John's mouth wider.
The kiss is filthy and wet and full of intent, and John's not in control of it at all, for all that he's standing over Rodney. When Rodney finally pulls back, John's achingly hard, and he can only summon a token amount of panic when Rodney's hands leave his face and end up at his belt. Rodney doesn't pause and he doesn't look up, he just calmly releases John's belt, unbuttons his pants, and reaches inside, sliding in with one hand to stroke John's cock firmly. John's right hand fumbles for the wall as his eyes squeeze shut; Rodney's hand is broad and perfect, sliding over the head to slick his palm with precome before starting to jack him off. John can't help moving with Rodney's rhythm, chasing the pleasure with his hips, his eyes shut and head thrown back.
John is already close when Rodney rubs his other hand up John's chest and across his nipple. He can't stop himself from letting out a groan at the unexpected sensation, and John looks down at Rodney without really meaning to. Rodney's biting his lip, and John can't see his eyes from this angle, but it suddenly strikes him that Rodney was absolutely not lying about what he'd said to John. Rodney really is in love with him, and he's showing it in the way he's touching John, in every brush of his fingertips on John's chest and every twist of his wrist.
This is too much for John, and he shuts his eyes again and lets out a long, low moan as he comes, loving the way Rodney strokes him through it confidently, the touches growing softer and softer until he pulls away right before it would have been too much. John turns his body to collapse against the wall, only just holding himself upright, his eyes crashing shut again as his breathing steadies back to normal.
"John," Rodney says in the same low voice he'd used earlier, the one that John has decided he wants to hear a lot more of, whether or not he ever plans to admit that ever again, even to himself.
John waves his hand, unsure of whether he means 'thank you,' or 'wait,' or something in between. His thoughts are slowly solidifying back into coherency, and the first thing that floats to the top was that he had really, really liked that.
"John," Rodney repeats, voice sharper than it is deep, now. "I'm not your method of stress relief," he says quietly. "Not like this."
John's eyes fly open and he looks over at Rodney, but Rodney's gathering himself onto his crutches, his back turned to John as he takes a few steps away. John's body immediately jolts out of afterglow and into defensive mode.
"That's not what I—"
"Please," Rodney says, sounding angry and hurt. John gets the impression he's supposed to feel like a complete asshole, but all he feels now is heavy, furious resentment.
"Fine," he says, zipping his pants and cinching his belt on his way to the door, which opens for him automatically. His boxers are still wet, his spine is tingling, and he wants to put as much distance between himself and Rodney McKay as is humanly possible. When he gets to his quarters, he strips off his clothes immediately and heads for the shower. John makes sure to toss the boxers into the garbage before heads into the bathroom, but the hollow, damp sound they make when they land doesn't do anything to alleviate his temper.
After two hours of wakefulness, Rodney gives up and accepts the fact that he won't be able to sleep. At the same time he realizes that he has mentally rearranged the picture frames on his wall so many times that, when he opens his eyes, he doesn't recognize their original position. He appreciates his mind's attempt to distract him, but there's really no getting around the fact that he'd gotten to kiss John Sheppard, let himself get carried away, and then done the absolute opposite of what he had really wanted to do and had thrown John out.
He's not sure whether he loves or hates his crystal clear memory right now, because now that he's allowing himself to think about it, he's reliving the entire experience all at once, like a sensory overload—lips, tongue, and hands; taste, sound, and touch. He'd wanted everything, as if he'd have been able to store it all up in his mind and call up the way he'd felt right before John had come, but of course, that was impossible. Rodney's life is always about context (his first encounter with the SGC had proven that to a bitter degree), and Rodney had realized John's context the moment he'd looked up to see John's eyes squeezed tightly shut, his hips thrusting shallowly into Rodney's palm.
Mentally, John hadn't been with him in that moment, Rodney was sure of it. He'd reached up to stretch his hand—his very male hand—across John's chest in a caress he could never have justified otherwise, and had told himself to be grateful for what he had. That hadn't lasted longer than it had taken to watch the look on John's face as he'd come.
Rodney had been jealous, so very jealous of whomever John had been thinking of, right then. This thought had made him bitter, and he had just wanted John to leave, though something in him had stopped the command on the word 'please,' hoping John would read into it, knowing that he wouldn't. Please stay was what he'd really wanted to say…
Rodney sits up and wishes very hard for a fresh cup of coffee, a physics journal that hasn't already been marked up (incorrectly, as usual) by any of the other science staff, or both. Instead, he gets up with difficulty, sits down on his couch, and opens his laptop (which is, thankfully, not on his desk). When he keys in his password and moves to access the section of the Ancient database that he's been working on, however, he finds that it is encrypted.
"No, no, no no no no," Rodney says, leaning forward in his seat to set the computer down on the table in front of the couch. A quick index of the Ancient database shows that 10% of it is under some sort of foreign encryption, a rate that is growing steadily. Nothing seems to be exempt, and his fingers fly over the keyboard as he pulls as much of the information vital to the operation of the city onto his computer, shuffling around or deleting less important files until he runs out of disk space. Then, he shuts off the computer's connection to the rest of the city, tucks it into the backpack he'd acquired for carrying things around the city while on crutches, and starts to get dressed.
His cast is a little banged up and his leg is sore by the time he's putting on his right shoe, but his worry is overriding everything else.
"Zelenka," Rodney says into his radio, not bothering to moderate his tone in deference to the time. What he has to say will chase the sleep from Radek's eyes anyway.
After his shower, John lies on the bed in his towel and stares at the ceiling for a long time. He feels like he's made a bet with fate and lost. Instead of getting McKay out of his system, John's basically given him full run of the place. Physically, he feels loose and relaxed for all that he's gone through in the past twenty-four hours, and as cliché as it is, he is pretty sure he knows why. Mentally, though, he feels more screwed up than ever. Half of his thoughts are directed toward running through every recent memory of the Teyla he had helped rescue, looking for clues that would reveal her deception. The other half is focused on Rodney in a confusing mishmash of sense-memory, happy times spent together, and projections of two distinct futures.
The frightening part for John is that he can't decide in which future he'd be the happiest, and, despite his anger less than an hour before, he's already spent five dangerous minutes letting the fact that he knows which future Rodney would be the happiest in influence him.
Except not, because Rodney thinks he was using him, because John was using him, and Jesus, Teyla, and FUCK Carter's decision to let the clone sleep in the brig overnight before anyone can talk to her, just fuck all of it.
John dresses in a rush, high on three different decades of rebellion as he leaves his quarters and heads for the stairs. He needs to work off some energy before he gets down to the brig, and besides, anything will be better than laying in bed dreaming about Teyla and her son trapped with Michael, or the look on Rodney's face as he asked John to leave. He resolves not to let anything or anyone interrupt him until he's got the information he needs from the clone, turning his radio off as he jogs through Atlantis' sleeping corridors.
"Rodney, this isn't happening quickly enough," Radek says in Rodney's ear.
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney pants into his radio, swinging himself into the transporter at a dangerous angle. In the time it took him to get dressed and explain his theory to Zelenka they lost another three percent of the database to the lockdown. "Moving as fast as I can, here," Rodney adds. He glares at the transporter doors—he absolutely does not have time for a malfunction, here—but they shut as promptly as usual, and with a sigh of relief, he presses the screen for his destination.
"Radek?" Rodney says. There's no response. Rodney wastes no time unfolding his hookup cables (though there is definite swearing involved), but when, in four minutes, his tablet computer is interfaced with the transporter, he is not comforted by what he sees. Every transporter in the city is now outlined in the maroon 'out of order' color, and three of them are blinking, his included. In a way it's comforting, because it means Radek will undoubtedly figure out the problem quickly. That is, if the code Zelenka would be using is still accessible by the time it needs to be activated…
Rodney groans and tries to access his monitoring program, but he's informed by a bright pink dialog box that this action cannot be completed due to limited memory. He stares at the color and allows a moment to wonder which of his scientists would have taken the time to code something like that, and whether they were new enough to be unaware that the chances of it popping up in a situation like this wasn't actually very low. He then tries to hack into the official communication network to see if he can send a message with instructions on how to implement his freeze on the database, but all he can pull up are incoming messages.
As he scrolls through the most recent ones looking for something relevant, he sees his own name, but before he has a chance to read the rest of it, the familiar flash of light courses over and through, and the transporter doors are opening for him.
"Radek, this isn't happening quickly enough," Rodney says into his radio, tearing his tablet free of the interface cables and rushing out of the transporter before the doors close again. Bit by bit, the city is shaving pieces off of itself and locking them away, and Rodney is stuck crawling through Atlantis's corridors, trying to chase a gremlin that someone he thought he knew has released.
"You're welcome," Zelenka says dryly before telling him he's shut down all access to the transporters, John isn't answering his radio, and that these things are part of the good news.
John looks at her and wants to see a stranger. He remembers how he felt when they'd discovered that the Carson they'd rescued was a clone, remembers thinking at the time that he should be able to hold himself distant, to see some difference. When he'd looked into that clone's eyes, John had seen the very same man he'd known for three years, the man whose coffin John had helped carry through the wormhole back to Earth. The similarities that had comforted him about Beckett taste like bile at the back of his throat now. The clinical detachment he'd been determined to display, had promised Colonel Carter he could maintain falls away, and he is horrified to find that his fists are clenched with the force of something very close to fury. John wants to fight her—not spar, fight—to beat and be beaten until he can break her into the pieces that don't fit.
"What do you want, John?" she asks. She hasn't moved from her graceful perch on the cell's bench, her body still resting in a position of meditation that belies the twisted nature of the mind beneath. His nostrils flare at her use of his first name and he looks for some sign of triumph in her expression, some indication that she's trying to unnerve him. Her expression doesn't change, however, and John realizes her easy familiarity isn't intentional, it's instinctual, a byproduct of their relationship—his and Teyla's.
"Don't," he snaps, ashamed and thrilled at the momentary look of hurt that crosses her face before it hardens, finally, into something almost foreign enough to hate. She—it, he wants to call this woman 'it' and put some distance between what she is and who she isn't, but he can't find it in himself to dehumanize Teyla—pulls herself to her feet and takes a step forward, looking unflinchingly into his eyes.
"If you have come here to convince yourself I am not the person I appear to be, I will not help you," she says evenly.
"You are nothing like her," John grits out, wishing it were true.
"That is where you are wrong," the clone says. This woman's anger looks no different from Teyla's; if anything, she seems even more real, her voice crackling with the energy he knows has always lurked under the surface.
"Teyla would never—"
"Can you truly say you do not believe 'your' Teyla could come to make the same decisions if she lived the life I have for the past year?" Her voice lashes out, cutting him with the sound of it, the weight of the words slicing deeper. "I have had to live with the direct results of your poor decision making, and yet you believe you can simply dismiss me because of the way I came to exist?"
"What did Michael do to you?" John asks. He immediately regrets his phrasing, because it sounds protective, something he keeps assuring himself he's not, not to this, this avatar of Teyla.
She steps closer, almost touching the force field that surrounds the cell, and by the look he can see in her eyes, he can tell she knows she is standing within his comfort zone, that he wants to move back. "He told me what I was. He showed me what you, all of you, were doing—destroying whole civilizations, allying with Wraith, standing by and watching while the results of your experiments caused the deaths of thousands."
John wants to argue with her, but he can't find the words. He's always known he would lose this argument with Teyla of all people, because while he firmly believed and still does believe that the decisions they made were right in their own context, the results of those decisions have had devastating effects in incredibly personal ways for her.
"Do you know where she is?" John asks, knowing he doesn't have to specify who he is talking about. "Where he is keeping her?"
It's Amelia, one of the Gate techs. Her hair is down to her shoulders and her uniform jacket is undone, and it looks as though she's just finished her shift and has been drafted into looking for him.
"Colonel Carter sent me with this," Amelia says apologetically, holding out an earpiece.
"Don't worry," John tells her. "I won't shoot the messenger." He puts it on and turns his back on the clone, stepping away to give himself the illusion of privacy.
"Sheppard to Carter," he says.
"Carter here. Normally I would be asking for an explanation from you, but we're in a situation, here. A large part of our database is being indexed and encrypted thanks to the virus. We're running out of disc space for backups, and there's still a great deal of information vital to the expedition that's vulnerable."
John turns to look at the clone.
"You may not wish to believe me, but I had planned on deactivating the virus before it did permanent damage."
He walks back over to the bars, feeling his anger rise back to the surface, and not caring to conceal it. "Do you consider death to be 'permanent damage?'"
"That was unforeseen," she says coolly, sitting back down with her hands folded in her lap.
"Fuck unforeseen," John growls, stopping just short of banging his hand on the horizontal bars. "Deactivate it!"
"Clearly I cannot do so from here," she says reasonably. "Release me, and I will deactivate it in return for a dose of the serum I brought with me."
"You're in no position to bargain," he tells her.
"I disagree. I am the only one with the capability to stop the virus, and I am growing weaker by the hour. If you wait too long, I will be unable to do anything."
"You're the only one risking your life," John points out.
"You say that because you do not know what the virus can do," the clone says, her voice finally taking on an edge of menace. "Even now it could be encrypting your ability to raise the shield, or creating an overload in your power generation."
"Sheppard?" It's McKay. "Maybe I can talk to her—she's still Teyla, just like Carson," he says, unable to see the way John's face twists on hearing this. "Maybe—"
"Your only care is the city," Teyla says, interrupting Rodney in a harsh voice that brooks no objection. "When you visited me in the infirmary, all you spoke were complaints about the trials you had to endure because I had been taken—do not try to tell me that your wishes now are any different."
Rodney doesn't respond, and John thinks he knows how he feels—as much as he despises her, Teyla's clone is implacable. Leaving the room means she's beaten him, however, and John has no intention of doing that unless it's with information that will save Atlantis. The city is his to protect, and—
"What about Teyla's child?" John says on a whim. If he weren't so attuned to Teyla's mannerisms by now he'd have missed the way she tenses up, curling her fingers into fists. "Fine," he tells her, "punish us, we deserve it, but does her baby deserve that? Tell me where to find her," John says, "Tell me how to save the baby. Do you know what Michael will do to—"
"Yes!" Teyla shouts at him. "Do you not think that if I had been able to produce the child he needed, he would have left your Teyla be? My genetic makeup was not compatible with the act of carrying a child, but that does not mean I do not know what it felt like to try." She shuts her eyes, her hands drifting to her stomach as if drawn by a magnet. "I believe I know what he is planning, and if I am right I do not regret that neither of the children I bore lived to see daylight."
Teyla opens her eyes. "If I help you, you must promise to tell Michael that he has failed in every way. That even his own creations will seek every possible way to defy him."
"That will be my pleasure, believe me," John tells her as he calls Sam with the good news.
Despite the fact that for all intents and purposes, her actions save Atlantis, Rodney hates the fact that Teyla's clone simply has to replace the modified Ancient crystal with her transponder embedded in it and then type a few words in order to halt the virus. It's not just the fact that he couldn't stop it on his own, it's that fact mixed with the ease at which she does it. It's misleading—of course the person who sets loose the virus can make it look easy to halt it!
But when the clone tells him it's her kill switch, not Michael's, he can't help but feel impressed. Expressing this to the clone just digs him in deeper, however, because she takes his reaction as proof that he's too prejudiced to believe that any Pegasus native could show aptitude with computers. Rodney wants to point out that if she knew him at all, she'd know that he's every bit as disparaging to his peers, but she continues, telling him in as angry a voice he's ever heard from Teyla that his attitude is exactly the sort of selfishness that had prompted her to go ahead with at least some of Michael's plan.
He wonders if 'his' Teyla holds the same opinion of him, of all of them.
John intervenes when the clone lunges awkwardly forward, presumably to continue detailing to Rodney how his arrogance, his self-absorption, has put them all in danger. Stopping her from continuing her barrage becomes catching her before she falls however, as her eyes roll back in her head, the cascading system failure taking hold.
They rush her to the stasis chamber, thanking any number of deities when she wakes, barely long enough to guide them toward Michael, and Torren, before falling unconscious again as the pod activates.
"Sheppard!" Rodney's headed toward him with determination writ large on his face.
John knows he should have been ready for this confrontation with McKay, but he's been trying (unsuccessfully) not to think about Rodney as much. John's got to get back to the status quo in at least one of his friendships; he feels he's failed Teyla by being fooled into believing she's safe, he still doesn't feel right about having sent Ronon into harm's way without John to back him up, he's screwed up his mutual respect with Sam by flouting her commands more than once over the past weeks, and Rodney— he's not sure they'll ever get back to the way they were, and he's not sure what he wants in its place. One thing he does know is that without Rodney, his city would have been turned into a beautiful, useless piece of floating junk, and they're nowhere near done putting all of the pieces back together. He's too valuable to lose.
"You're going the wrong way, McKay," John says without turning around.
"Nice try, but I'm coming with you."
"McKay!" John turns around to point at Rodney's ankle. "You're injured. You're a liability. It's that simple," John tells him point blank, hoping to make a dent.
He remembers a time when he was in high school and his buddies decided to bully the smartest kid in their class. The boy had completely crumpled under their jeers, and John had felt awkward and out of place just watching the way they tore him down. Something tells John that Rodney, despite his inability to handle most social situations, was never that kid.
"Are you an idiot? You need me. Atlantis has Zelenka," Rodney says, square-jawed and implacable.
"We're headed to a hive ship, Rodney. Teyla's life is at stake—"
"Which is why you're going to stop being obtuse and let me come with you. She's too important to lose," Rodney says, and the mirroring of John's earlier thought makes him forget to hold back.
"So are you!" John shouts. This shuts Rodney up, and in the quiet of the jumper bay, they both stand there looking at each other for a long uncomfortable moment.
"So, don't lose me," Rodney finally says, swinging himself up into the jumper John plans to use for the rescue.
John really wishes Rodney McKay wasn't so goddamned smart, sometimes.
They shoot through the space gate already cloaked, the clone's words of warning heavy on their minds. If Michael has indeed outfitted his ship with hybrid Athosians, the Wraith stunners they've brought with them will only incapacitate them for so long. It would be so much easier, Rodney thinks, if Michael's minions were all drones—they're relatively easy to kill, and their aim is even worse than Rodney's was when he first started on the team. It isn't that Rodney necessarily likes killing, it's that he doesn't like the prospect of being killed, especially not by people he might have once considered friends, or at the very least, friendly.
"So," John says to Ronon as they see the outline of Michael's ship ahead, "Do you really think you've got the antibodies now, or did you just say that so Sam would let you come with us?"
Ronon just grins in a way that answers the question.
Rodney starts to check his vest for everything he might need, suddenly horrified at the thought that no one may have thought to restock it after he'd worn it through the collapse. To his great relief, he finds ample ammunition and power bars in the many pockets, and a sneaking, absolutely impossible suspicion creeps up in his mind, fueled by the discovery that all of the energy bars are John Sheppard's favorite. He tries not to read too much into it, tells himself it's likely that John had done this for him prior to Rodney's declaration, but it feels like what it is—considerate and caring—and this makes him even more determined not to let John or Teyla down today.
"How long ago did Colonel Caldwell say the dart entered his airspace?" John asks after circling the hive ship once for reconnaissance.
"Just over a half hour," Lorne says. "If they did their jobs right, it should be coming through the Stargate any minute now."
"Well, let's hope no one got overzealous," John says, voicing the same concern everyone in the jumper is probably thinking. Their plan hinges on the dart bay opening willingly, to admit the dart that 'barely escaped' from being destroyed by the Daedalus while on its mission. If the 302 pilot assigned to the task of attacking but not destroying the dart fails, their element of surprise goes out the airlock.
Rodney's just about to wonder aloud as to whether they arrived too late when they hear the welcome sound of the Stargate engaging.
"Here we go," John says, trailing the dart into the hive ship with the ease of someone who's done this too many times before. When he lands, he turns in the pilot's chair to address everyone in the jumper.
"All right. Getting out is as important as getting in. Rodney, you and Captain Franks wait here and defend the jumper. The rest, come with me—remember that we're going to try to keep from killing hybrids."
Rodney's already got his tablet computer out and is checking his cables; as soon as they need him to hack into the hive, he'll be ready. He hopes this marine is better at backup support than the one guarding himself and Elizabeth at the replicator planet. When everyone starts to file out, Rodney looks up to make eye contact with John.
"Sorry you're stuck—" John starts to say, but Rodney waves his hand in a shooing motion.
"Yes, yes. I'll be here when you need me. Go be the hero."
"Just don't end up as the damsel in distress, okay?" John teases in a loud whisper as he walks down the ramp and into the greenish gloom.
"You could have led them here! Useless!"
In a fit of rage, Michael reaches for a drone's weapon and turns it on the hybrid cowering in front of him. It doesn't even beg for its life, which angers him enough that he turns the weapon backwards and plunges it into the hybrid's chest. It dies with a low gurgle that does nothing to ease his fury, and Michael whirls towards Kanaan.
"Run a scan of the surrounding area," he orders. He feels almost helpless, dependent on others that will never have his drive, his ambition, nor understand his need for vengeance. In a way, he misses the security that comes from having a queen, but Michael had never served one whose intelligence he had respected. He'd always thought the power they held must threaten their sanity, but he'd never expected it to be lonely. He feels confident in his handling of the former, but the latter is wearing on him.
"No sign—" Kanaan begins, and Michael roars in frustration, drowning out the rest of his answer. "Run it again," he directs, and then, as a thought occurs to him, "Inside and out!" He hovers near the display to see what the result will be, but by the time it displays, Michael can hear commotion in the hallway and knows that his fears have proven valid.
"Gather the hybrids," he tells Kanaan, turning to the console to input his code and a few key commands. He knows who is coming, he knows why—and he knows that they won't leave with who they're looking for, no matter what.
John watches Ronon's six as the blaster claims the lives of two drones. Ronon aims, then spins away, allowing John to step forward and fire at an approaching hybrid. It's working well, their system, but it's loud, and while John knows he can't get to Michael's hub in the hive ship without alerting him to their presence, he wishes there had been a way to do it. Michael's not like the Wraith John's used to fighting, and facing him in a hive is dangerous for more reasons than just home turf advantage. John doesn't want to be tricked by his surroundings into underestimating Michael's cunning.
"Getting close," Ronon says over his shoulder. John nods, and for a split second, the color of the light around them shifts to a sickly red, flashing a few times before returning to normal.
"What do you think that means?" Lorne asks from behind him. The sound of the Wraith alarm answers his question before John has the chance.
"And here's why we make the big bucks," John quips, pulling a block of C4 from his vest to place on the bridge door, but before he has a chance to arm it, the door opens on its own.
"Please, come in. No point in needless destruction," Michael says from inside. After a brief round of nods from his team, John steps through the doors, all senses on alert and his weapon at the ready, he sees a crumpled body lying in a pool of blood on the floor.
"No point," John echoes, shaking his head slightly at the dichotomy. The room is darker than a usual Wraith control room (and the absurdity of the fact that John can even make this observation isn't lost on him), and there's an odd reddish flashing coming from one of the consoles. It's not unlike what they had experienced in the corridor, and John resolves to somehow make his way to where he can see the readings, even though he knows that without being able to read Wraith, it probably won't do him any good.
"I must confess I hadn't thought you'd go to such lengths for a mere infant." Michael is standing at the back of the room, flanked by drones. Their numbers are just about evenly matched (though John has Ronon, and really, that makes most fights unfairly balanced in his favor), but owing to Michael's odd, welcoming manner, they're all watching and waiting for more data before they attack.
"Yeah, well. Your clone sends her regards. Seems even your own creations will work against you given the chance." John smiles smugly as Ronon takes advantage of Michael's flicker of shock and moves forward until he's mere feet in front of Michael. He raises his blaster, points it right at Michael's forehead, and gets straight to the point.
Michael tips his head to the side as though gauging exactly how much bullshit Ronon will take.
"Am I supposed to think that if my answer doesn't please you, you'll fire?" Michael asks calmly. "Kill me, and she'll never be found."
"How about I kill you and the rest of the Wraith, and you can keep your threats?" Ronon says evenly, his gun never wavering.
Michael takes a step forward. "You could," he says in his strangely plural voice. "But she will die just as quickly, no matter what you do."
John moves in beside Ronon and squints at Michael in the half light. "You give us Teyla, you get to live." John can hear the low sounds of dissent from both Ronon and Lorne, but he came for Teyla—and with what her clone knows, he's sure they could find him again. It's a good bargain.
"I'm afraid she's out of reach," Michael says, "it may already be too late."
John can see Ronon clenching his jaw in anger, now that his hair isn't there to mask his expression. Ronon holsters his gun and pulls his shirt apart at the drawstrings, exposing his bare chest.
"My life for hers," he says, tipping his head back. "Tell them where she is, and you can feed on me."
It's a brilliant play, and John can't help but admire Ronon for coming up with it. Michael doesn't seem as impressed, and in a moment, they see why, as he holds his smooth palms up for them to see.
"I'm sure I could collect a bounty worth half the galaxy for you," Michael says. "If I cared about money, or Wraith influence." He takes the few steps that separate him from Ronon and leans in to speak into his ear. "Would you be so brave if you could be fed on?"
Ronon flinches, but doesn't rise to the bait. "You know I would," he answers through clenched teeth.
Michael leaves him to stand there, stewing in his anger, and starts to wander the room. John adjusts his position accordingly, ostensibly to keep Michael in his sights, but really, he's trying to get a view of the blinking console. Its pattern has started to speed up, and John's pretty sure that's not good in any language.
The atmosphere of the room has shifted toward the weird, as silence has reigned for over three minutes. Michael's odd meandering appears to have had a purpose, as he suddenly turns to face them, his body framed by an oddly smooth nook in the corner of the control room.
"It's a shame that Teyla will be so frail by the time she hears of your deaths," he tells them triumphantly. "I'll be sure to tell her it was in her honor."
The blinking light starts to flash what is undoubtedly a countdown, and Michael slams himself back into his cocoon—only to hear the unmistakable sounds of a motor powering down. Then, John's radio blares to life.
"So the moral of the story is," Rodney's voice says in the tone John recognizes as pure unadulterated 'I Told You So,' "Never leave your scientist at home—or, if you're a pathetic excuse of a bad guy archetype, never, ever leave to a countdown what a detonator button will do. Oh," he adds in a voice dripping with condescension, "—and build better escape hatches if you ever expect to survive planet reentry. Do you have any idea how hot—"
"Good job, McKay," John interrupts, feeling a rush of affection that is threatening to leave him with a huge shit-eating grin on his face.
It's at this moment that Ronon strikes, whipping out a perfect replica of his blaster from a leg holster and grabbing his original as well. He fires both at double time, and within seconds, all of the drones are smoking on the floor. Ronon stalks over to where Michael is standing still with amazement and presses the barrel of one of his guns right up against his left hand. Then he fires the other one, making a neat round hole the size of a man's head in the organic view screen.
"Don't need your hands anymore," Ronon says. He pulls the gun away from Michael's hand and makes as though he's going to fire.
"She is not here!" Michael protests. "Even if I told you where she is, you would be too late."
"What do you mean?" John says, walking over to surreptitiously deflect Ronon's aim from Michael's hand.
"Each minute takes her closer to death," Michael gloats. "By the time you find her she will be withered away and useless."
Ronon fires, causing Michael to jump in shock, though John's certain that Ronon knows the gun's trajectory was altered.
"If you kill me, her life will be in vain," Michael says. John reaches out to hold Ronon back, though he's pretty angry himself.
"Enough games," John almost yells. Michael turns his face toward John and starts to mumble as though he's having a psychotic break, which doesn't seem all that unlikely.
"—whole life in a blink of an eye, all my work… old in the time it takes to grow a drone…"
"Complete gibberish," Lorne observes with disgust.
"No, it's not," John realizes. "Time dilation field," he says, watching for Michael's reaction. He's not disappointed; Michael jerks in surprise as though he'd never expected them to guess. But is there more than one possible planet? He steps away from Ronon and Michael and taps his earpiece.
"On it," McKay tells him without waiting to hear what John's going to ask. Two agonizing minutes later, Rodney crows with triumph over the radio.
"He's been there, John, you're right, but we've got to hurry!"
"Let's go," John tells his team, and the marines start to jog back in the direction they'd come.
"We need him anymore?" Ronon asks, gesturing to Michael with his blaster. Rodney answers with his usual succinctness.
"Well technically, no, I mean, I was going to tell you in a minute anyway, but it looks like he's got schematics here for a way to interrupt the time dilation field long enough to extract someone, but there's the fact that he's got a ton of bases and who knows how many projects—"
"Didn't think so," Ronon says with finality, aiming and firing off a double shot before John has a chance to make a command decision. He looks down at Michael's body and then up at Ronon, shocked and a little impressed. That wasn't the way they did it in the movies.
What is taking them so long? Rodney asks himself for the fifth time since John had reported they were on their way back. He's retreated back into the jumper with the marines John had sent back already, reasoning that if John wants any more information about the hive ship, Rodney can either point out that they don't have the time, or try interfacing with the jumper. He's making notes of what materials he's going to need from Atlantis to send into the dilation field with whoever's going through, in order to disable it when John pages Rodney on the radio.
"McKay, can you give me a life signs count on the hive?" Rodney tries to calm his sense of urgency and calls up the jumper's HUD. There are two clusters of life signs directly in front of each other; they're the only ones on the ship. Huh, Rodney thinks, and reports this.
"You need backup?" Lorne asks John.
"No. They're Athosian," John replies. The life signs were hybrids then, not Wraith, which is comforting in some ways and not in others. A minute or two later, John and Ronon show up with the group of hybrids in tow; John grabs a radio from a marine and promises their leader that the Daedalus will be in contact. It's incredibly difficult for Rodney to suppress his urge to shoo John up into the jumper and back into space, but John takes the hint from Rodney's tightly compressed lips and gets moving.
"I thought Michael was supposed to be in control of them," Lorne says, nodding back at the ship as they race for the Stargate.
"It didn't look like Michael was in control of much of anything," John observes. "Though that had a lot to do with McKay's quick thinking." He turns to flash a grateful smile at Rodney that lights up the whole jumper. "Thanks again, Rodney."
Marines in the jumper, marines in the jumper… Rodney chants in his head as he smiles back and mutters something inconsequential. Then they're landing in the jumper bay and Rodney has a self-imposed deadline of ten minutes to gather everything he needs, crutches be damned.
"Find the person you're sending through the portal in the next ten minutes and get them to the control room so I can tell them what they'll need to do," is the last coherent thing out of Rodney's mouth that John can understand before McKay starts for the door with as much speed as John thinks he's ever seen from him, injured or not. John doesn't start canvassing his troops for volunteers, though, because it's been obvious to him who has to go, whether Rodney's too busy to realize it or not. He starts for his quarters; even if Rodney can orchestrate dropping the field in half a day, that's still over a month of time for anyone inside it, and John doubts he will be greeted by a peaceful sect of people looking to ascend, this time.
"Hey," Ronon calls out before John gets far out of the jumper bay. He turns around to see Ronon tossing an object toward him: His second blaster.
"You'll want it in there—doesn't need ammo," Ronon says, turning to walk away. John's still trying to process this development, but he manages to tell Ronon to hold up.
"Where did you—"
"McKay. Said it was for you." Ronon shrugs. "Figured three years of begging was enough, and you deserve it."
This time when Ronon turns away, John's too overcome to stop him. Rodney made him a blaster! John hardly knows anyone that's seen Ronon's gun in action who doesn't want one, and he's hardly known Ronon to be without it. He's touched by Ronon's faith in him, yes, but what's really getting him is the fact that Rodney took time he didn't have to do something like that for John, without asking for anything in return. Because, Rodney had been right—he hasn't treated John any differently, despite John's immediate change in behavior. John's pretty sure Rodney hadn't intended to ever let John know how he feels.
Again, John's drawn back to that moment outside the stasis chamber, when he asked Rodney's hologram if he'd rather John just stay trapped, so that Rodney's brief happiness with Jennifer wouldn't be erased. John walks into his quarters, looking for the most comfortable, durable clothes he has to take with him. In his mind, he can hear himself telling Rodney that changing the future means there's no guarantee that he'll end up with Jennifer.
"Yeah, that's what I'm counting on," Rodney had said. But at that point, John hadn't known how Rodney felt about him. It was almost as if Rodney would rather live alone in a world with John than have a relationship in a world without. John's adrenaline is flowing; he's about to step through to a time dilation field he has no sure guarantee he'll ever get back out of… for the second time in his life. That's not what has him so off-balance, though. He feels like he's come to the break point, where he either needs to fly off on his own or keep to formation.
"McKay to Sheppard—you have five minutes to find your guy," Rodney reminds him. John's really kind of scared that he already has.
Thanks to the transporters being down, it takes John six minutes to get to the control room, and all through the last minute, he's certain he's going to hear Rodney's unhappy complaint that he's late. When he gets there, though, Rodney's worked up, but not because John's late, but because Rodney's not ready.
"This is complicated," Rodney says, frowning at his computer. "I can do it, but if the person we send through isn't good at thinking on their feet, it's not going to work. I'm not sure how Michael was going to get around that part," he adds.
"That won't be a problem," John tells him, setting his tac vest on the floor beside the console. "Let me know what to do, and I'll—"
"No, no, no. We're not playing telephone with this. Bring them here, and—"
"I mean I'm going," John interrupts. "Tell me how to do it."
Rodney looks at John for the first time since he got to the control room, clearly taking in John's soft cotton shirt and his tac vest with its pockets stuffed full.
"Sam?" he calls out. "Heading into the conference room, radio if you need me," Rodney says without waiting for a response. He starts for the doors of the conference room while John's still standing there trying to process what just happened. He catches up with Rodney easily, and when they both cross the threshhold, Rodney turns around so fast John wonders if the crutches are just for show, now.
"I won't argue that you're not the perfect candidate for this, but you can't go," Rodney says. "And please don't tell me you think it's because of how I feel—"
Even though Rodney says this in a low voice, John still takes another step inside and lets the doors slide shut.
"I don't think that, Rodney," John says.
"—because that's only a small part of it. The city needs you, and I'm not comfortable with the idea that I might have spent an entire lifetime without world-class research grants or a Nobel only to see you get old and gray because… Because I had to rush this. It might not work, John," Rodney admits unhappily. "And I want Teyla back, believe me, I do, and I sound horribly selfish, but it's on behalf of the city, and this is one of those times where you don't have to go off and do something dangerous thanks to something I'm in charge of—"
John hears the words, understands the complex sentiments behind them, and recognizes that there's one sure-fire way to derail Rodney's desperate monologue. The question for John is whether he's ready to go there. What motivates him is the thought of what Rodney might think for the rest of his life if John doesn't say something and somehow does get stuck in there forever. Because, whether or not Rodney would ever say that John owes him for bringing him back, John knows he does.
"I uh…" Just say it, John, he tells himself. But he was never one for a willing heart to heart conversation, even when he'd been married, so instead of telling Rodney what he's been thinking about, John shows him. He steps close to Rodney, who hadn't stopped talking before, but he does now. Placing one hand on each of Rodney's shoulders, John tips his head forward, shutting his eyes and waiting for Rodney to complete the gesture. When, a tense thirty seconds later, Rodney does, John opens his eyes, having thought of the perfect phrase that conveys everything he wants Rodney to know.
"I trust you," John tells him, his lips three inches away from Rodney's. I'd trust you with anything, John hopes his actions convey. He's not quite ready to give Rodney what he wants, but he's done running away from the idea, anyway.
"Wow. Okay, um," Rodney says, blinking at him in astonishment for a few seconds before pulling away and grabbing his computer in a bemused rush. "Here's what you have to do…"
Rodney knows he's a complete idiot.
He isn't entirely certain he could have avoided it, but this isn't any consolation now that John and his confusing (possibly-not-completely-hating-the-idea of maybe being with Rodney?) self is growing an undoubtedly sexy beard in the time dilation field right now. But John's been a heterosexual all his life, Rodney's pretty sure (not that he hasn't devoted a few nights to picturing a young John Sheppard experimenting in college), and now Rodney's gone and given him months' worth of time to persuade himself that's what he wants after all. Not to mention the fact that if Teyla hasn't been there as long as Michael claimed she was, John might decide that a beautiful and intelligent woman right there in front of him is better than a balding and hesitant man who had a chance to speak up for years and—
He's got to stop torturing himself, but unfortunately he can't help build the phasing beacon they're building to send through the time dilation field, and Rodney got all of the coding done for it in the two hours since John left. They sent Lorne out a half hour ago in a jumper stuffed to the brim with food, supplies, and a camera to record whether they've been picked up, but it takes time to walk from the jumper through the woods to the portal, and he's not back yet.
"Glowering is not motivating, Rodney," Radek pipes up from behind his welding helmet. "Speed makes mistakes, as you know."
"You were never able to prove that it was my shortcut that caused the breakdown," Rodney protests, waving a hand as though to dismiss Zelenka's argument entirely. "And even a shortcut takes weeks of Sheppard's life—"
"Enough!" Radek lifts the helmet to frown at Rodney. "You are wasting my time with distraction. Go sit by the Stargate and pine for your team leader while leaving me alone!"
The thought that Rodney was prolonging the building process was enough to send him away, though after the third time he asks Sam to get a status report from Zelenka, she tells him Radek is threatening to refuse to ever fill out Rodney's staff assessment paperwork ever again.
When Lorne returns, his news isn't any more heartening—though they'd sent paper and crayons (Sam's idea; the wax might prove easier to pinpoint in the dark cave with a low light video recorder), John hasn't set up any kind of status report whatsoever. It takes six hours to complete their part of the plan, twice as long as Rodney had hoped. It's another half hour until they are able to drop the phasing beacon, but thanks to the revolutionary equations that Michael's schematics had included (that Rodney totally intends on using to humiliate most of the scientists on Earth, if the SGC ever lets him), they're able to nullify the tidal forces just long enough to send a 'cease' message to the receiver Rodney knows John has already built at the transmitter.
The bubble that's developed thanks to the dilation field below seems to flicker just once, but Rodney knows that at the rate the time is racing through it, they were two full hours apart for John. The nearly four months (instead of the two Rodney had been hoping for) he had to spend down there should have been more than enough to locate Teyla and her son, neutralize any threats that might remain, and show up at the portal in time for the second shut-down, but Rodney's terrified that their crazy Pegasus luck will strike at the worst time for his teammates.
There's no way in hell Rodney's going to make it through the autumn woods on crutches, so he waits anxiously at the jumper as Sam and Ronon head toward the portal. Five agonizing minutes later, he hears rustling through the brush that lines the forest floor. The sound of running footsteps join the rustling leaves, and then a piercing giggle as two figures burst straight through a dry pile of leaves. Rodney's relief is so strong he has to sit down on the bench inside the puddlejumper.
It's John and a little boy of about three or four years old. The boy is wearing what had clearly been one of John's field shirts on top of pants made of animal skin and bare feet covered with mud. His long black hair is full of leaves from his trek through the woods, and as Rodney watches, John scoops the little boy up and turns him almost upside down in his arms, shaking all of the leaves off. John looks fantastic, his shaggy beard matching his shaggy hair and well-worn clothes. The grin on his face is genuine and unguarded, and Rodney feels almost hopeless at the idea of ever being able to prompt such a reaction in him.
Rodney's body is blocked from John's sight by the shadow inside the jumper, and Rodney doesn't know what to say, so he stays hidden until adult voices herald the arrival of Teyla, Sam, and Ronon.
Teyla's hair is long and full, and she's wearing a ringlet of flowers on her head that Rodney's sure John must have put there. She looks happy and healthy, and Rodney's overcome with the emotion of having missed her. This is the Teyla he knows and loves, with her joyous smile and proud bearing. He grabs at his crutches with hands that are trembling, and by the time he makes it to the bottom of the ramp, Teyla's at his side and offering a hug.
"You'll never believe—" Rodney starts to say, then stops, remembering the words the clone had spoken to him about his selfish disregard for anyone but himself. And while he doesn't want to be that person, and she may have had a point, this—here, now—was Teyla, his teammate and friend. "—what we went through to find you!" Rodney says anyway, and beams when Teyla leans her head against his and laughs.
"I missed you also, Rodney," she says.
"I'm sorry it took us so long," Rodney tells her. "I was completely ready to watch the baby for you, you know," he lies. Teyla sees through it easily, and Rodney wonders how he could ever have mistaken the recognition in the clone's eyes for the honest affection in Teyla's.
"So John has said. But your lateness has had the happy effect of Torren being able to spend his first years in grass and sunshine," Teyla says, after rewarding him with a skeptical look for his offer. "John has begun to teach him how to read and write."
Torren, hearing his name, wiggles free of John's arms and approaches Ronon, who seems to be carrying their accumulated possessions in the large duffel bag Rodney had sent with Lorne. Torren looks cowed by Ronon's size (but not completely intimidated, as Rodney suspects he would have been if Ronon still had his longer hair), but he stands his ground, asking for his 'papers' in childish but clear language.
"So that's where the crayons ended up," Sam says when Torren finally pulls what he wants from the bag. Torren sits on the ground by Ronon's feet and spreads a handful of crayon drawings out in the grass in front of him, clearly looking for a particular one. When he finds it, he surprises everyone by holding it out to Ronon.
"This you?" he says, pointing at a tall man with long snake-like hair standing next to a figure that has to be Teyla. Ronon crouches down and nods soberly. Torren reaches out a small hand to pat Ronon's head gingerly, a sad expression on his face.
"Want a ride?" Ronon asks him, leaning over far enough that Torren could climb onto his shoulders. His dark eyes wide, Torren nods and clambers on.
Rodney watches as John observes Torren throughout this exchange with a look pretty close to fatherly pride. He hasn't glanced Rodney's way once, and the whole rescue strikes Rodney as bittersweet; he'd known this would happen, but for him, it's only been a few hours since John had given him the hope he'd never expected to feel. Telling himself he would regret drawing attention to himself, Rodney calls out to John, who's gathering up the papers Torren has left on the grass.
"You want to fly us back, Sheppard? You've got to be itching for it by now."
As expected, John's response is focused on his new family, and not Rodney.
"What do you say, Torren—do you want to fly in a real spaceship?" Torren's wide-eyed nod is adorable even to Rodney, who had been horrified at the prospect of diaper changes, and isn't so sure he's any happier about whatever messes a toddler has in store for him.
Ronon sits in the co-pilot's chair with Torren, Teyla on seat behind them. Rodney defers to Sam for the seat behind John and chooses to sit on the bench, feeling just as isolated emotionally as he does physically. At least when they land, he's able to vacate the jumper quickly, and it's easy to lose himself in the crowd of expedition members waiting to welcome Teyla and her son back home.
Rodney hasn't had a real shower in a long time, because it's difficult enough to wrap a leg cast in plastic bags on Earth where one has a never-ending supply of them, much less in Atlantis, though for different reasons. Here, most of them have been appropriated by the poker club as doggie bags for their winnings. Rodney really, really sucks at poker, but he's managed to acquire a large black garbage bag that fits perfectly around his leg. A few lengths of duct-tape later and he's enjoying a long, hot shower that might have been obscene in other circumstances. Rodney's just too depressed for that right now (which is depressing in and of itself, really), so he finishes up with a luxurious hair lather and after ripping off the ugly bag, he wraps himself in the huge bath towel that he'd bribed his sister to bring with her on her last visit.
He hops out his bathroom door and reaches for his crutches.
"Hello, Rodney," John says.
Rodney jerks in surprise, his towel sliding one way and his crutches another. He opts for the towel, because being rejected twice in the same room is bad enough without being naked the second time.
"Hey. Um?" Rodney says, at a complete loss. He stares at John for a second, noting his damp-looking hair and freshly-shaven face. "My robe?" he finally blurts out without thinking.
"Oh, right," John says, actually standing up from Rodney's loveseat and retrieving the robe from Rodney's bed… which is strewn with Rodney's clothes from getting ready for the shower, the clothes he plans to wear to bed, and the clothes from the drawer he hides his bath towel in (because you can't be too careful with luxury items like that). John's circling around behind him, apparently to drape the robe over Rodney's shoulders, and there's only one way this could be more embarrassing—
"Hey," John says conversationally, "Did you know that there's a tag on your ass that says 'Property of Dr. Rodney McKay?'"
Rodney starts hopping back towards the bathroom.
"Do you really need the 'Dr.' part on it? Wouldn't the—"
"John?" Rodney manages. "What are you doing here?"
"Yeah, about that," John says awkwardly, rubbing his hand on his neck in that way he has when he's uncomfortable.
"If you're here to tell me about you and Teyla, I figured it out," Rodney says, holding his head up proudly. "I won't try to get in the way."
"You won't? That's kind of disappointing."
Rodney tries to turn around slowly, the effect marred by the way he has to hop, and thus clutch his towel to make sure it doesn't fall off.
"I mean," John continues, looking around the room as though this weren't a possibly life-changing conversation. "I'd figure someone like you would play dirty. Fluctuating shower temperatures, squeaking radio malfunctions, that sort of thing."
"Squeaking radio malfunctions?" Rodney can't help asking.
"Rodney," John says, and holy hell, John Sheppard is in his room whining while Rodney stands in the doorway of his own bathroom in nothing but a towel and robe. "Can we please skip this and get to the part where I'm not stuck in a hut milking goats imagining all the things you can do with your hands?"
"You milked goats?"
"Rodney," John practically growls. There's another second where Rodney's still stuck on the image of John Sheppard, flyboy Kirk, milking goats, before his brain catches up to the rest of the sentence.
"Oh," Rodney says, a little stupidly. "Well, okay, yes!" he says, snapping his fingers twice and clapping before he can stop himself. There follows a few seconds of silence that should be uncomfortable (really, he just did a freaking 90's snap-clap move like they were about to do a science fair project together) but actually isn't that bad until they both realize at the same time that they're waiting for the other to make the first move.
"How did I ever think of you as Kirk? Get over here," Rodney adds in a voice that he hopes to hell doesn't sound as vulnerable as he feels, because, okay, he can't reach his crutches, and hopping is already totally not sexy even without a 'Property Of' tag waving around in the vicinity of his ass.
"I'm not one of your lab assistants," John says, even as he starts walking towards Rodney.
"I used to think you were smarter than all of them," Rodney confesses, "until three seconds ago when you still weren't—"
John's kiss is every bit as cocky as his behavior leading up to it, which suits Rodney just fine. He lets himself be led wherever John wants him to go, which happens to be deep and dirty, and maybe Rodney's starting to get why John's commanders let him get away with the non-regulation hair and untidy uniform, because there's a kind of joy to John's insolence, here. It's like he's reminding himself with every sloppy kiss and caught breath that this could cost him his job. It's exhilarating and sexy right up until the moment that John drops to his knees.
"Yes, yes, yes, but no, can't stay… standing—God yes—seriously, bed, NOW, and um, John?" Rodney stammers, brain and cock warring for bloodflow. There's something he needs to ask, but what…
It comes back to him right as John releases Rodney's towel, something in the rebellious look in his eye that sends the red flag of worry back for another round of qualms in Rodney's head.
"This is quite possibly the stupidest thing I'll ever say, but—this isn't like, a big 'fuck you' to your draconian government, right? I didn't unleash some sort of…"
"Rodney," John interrupts, his hot hands resting on Rodney's thighs in a way that will haunt his dreams whether or not he ever gets to have this again. "I'm going to suck you. Then, I'm hoping you'll touch me however the hell you want, and I promise you when I come I will not be lying back and thinking of Uncle Sam, okay?"
Rodney files away the prospect of dirty talk for the future under 'Please, For the Love of…' He has to be sure, though.
"Four months, Rodney," John says just before he dips his head to mouth the tip of Rodney's dick, and Rodney forgets everything he was going to say thanks to John's excellent powers of persuasion. John's mouth is hot; the swirls of his tongue are exactly right, and by the time John's hands trail sweat from Rodney's thighs to pump him a few times as he sucks, Rodney's right on the edge. Rodney's been clutching his comforter in a vain attempt to keep from pulling John's hair, but when John's tongue twists one way and his fingers curl in another, the friction is too much, and Rodney forgets himself.
With a long groan of pleasure, Rodney slides his hand through John's hair and just then, John lets out a moan of his own. The vibration is too much for Rodney, and he tugs on John's hair in a desperate last-minute warning.
"I'm—" he breathes, and John pulls off to rest his head on Rodney's thigh, palming him with the perfect amount of pressure through his orgasm, pulling off right when Rodney is trying to work up enough energy to flail at him.
"That…" Rodney tries to say. Then, "You—I—"
"I know," John says, wiping his hand on Rodney's bath towel before sitting on the floor leaning against the bed. A few minutes pass as Rodney tries to reassemble his brain Dr. Manhattan style.
"Don't think I missed your nerd moment, Solo," Rodney says. "Up here, please, I was never young enough for the floor."
The way John hoists himself up onto the bed with his arms makes Rodney stare with no shame. John had taken his shoes and socks off while Rodney was still recuperating, and the sight of John Sheppard's bare feet on Rodney's favorite old comforter makes it all real to him. It's the sort of detail he wouldn't have bothered with in his fantasies, just as he wouldn't have pictured the way John's body loses its tenseness the second Rodney slides his hand down John's chest.
Rodney slowly unbuckles John's belt; the button on his pants comes undone easily thanks to the pressure of John's hard cock against the fabric. The tension breaks slightly when Rodney struggles in vain to pull John's pants off in a way that doesn't make them both look like inexperienced teenagers, but with John's help, both pants and boxers end up in a pile beside the bed, and Rodney's faced with everything he's always wanted, and then some.
"I knew there was a reason why you wore them baggy," Rodney says, sacrificing a few hours of back pain to the pleasure of kissing John's clever mouth and stroking him at the same time on the narrow bed. The way John moves underneath him—alive and so very real—fuels Rodney's desire just as much as John's own ministrations had. John's cupping Rodney's head in a way that feels more like holding on than anything else, and Rodney isn't quite sure how in the hell he's managing to move his hand and kiss at the same time, he's so overwhelmed with pure want.
Then, John's hands move down to Rodney's ass, and everything is friction and wetness and heat until he doesn't care whose wet spot he's lying in and Jesus, it's a good thing spontaneous human combustion is a bunch of hooey, because Rodney's pretty sure they would have proved it, right there.
They lie there for a long time just breathing each other's air until the reality of drying body fluids, morning staff meetings, and full bladders becomes more pressing. They look at each other over Rodney's defiled towel and Rodney tells himself he doesn't even mind that John took the Star Wars route of vocal reciprocation.
In what Rodney later determines is a rare moment of perceptiveness, though, John nudges Rodney when he gets up, nodding towards his discarded clothes.
"Check my pocket," John says as he heads into the bathroom, gracelessly hopping into his boxers on the way. Somehow Rodney manages to look away from this spectacle long enough to grab John's trousers and, sure enough, there's a creased piece of paper inside. He unfolds it to find a crude crayon drawing of two stick figures, one with a mass of black hair, another with a prominent frown and big blue eyes.
"Torren drew it," John says over the sound of the toilet flushing. "It's us."
It isn't until John's gone back to his own quarters and Rodney's absolutely not stupidly staring at Torren's drawing that he notices the John and Rodney drawings are holding hands.
During his first weeks back in Atlantis, visiting Teyla in her quarters with Torren instead of at their house in the abandoned cloister had felt truly strange to John. What had really made him feel at home, though, was the first time he sparred with Ronon. John had left with a bruise on his chin and a small cut on his finger that had merited sucking kisses (Rodney loves to mark him, but John can't risk it—unless he has a reason for the bruise) and a bitchfest, in that order. It turns out that Rodney likes John's hands about as much as John likes his, which is an interesting development. Exploring this became the reason Rodney didn't lose his temper and fire his entire staff when he saw that he needed to go over everything that Michael's virus touched in order to make sure that all traces were gone ("I swear, if I ever go crazy and decide to enact some diabolical plot via computer virus, I'm going to make sure it's self-erasing, because the guy cleaning it all up afterwards seriously doesn't need this shit!"). The private celebration Rodney has for the completion of that particular job makes John wonder why the hell Rodney took so long to tell John how he feels.
It isn't until Jennifer announces that she's successfully duplicated the serum that John remembers that not everything is back to normal.
Teyla wakes from stasis without pain, neither of which she had expected. When her eyes adjust to the light in the room, she sees that she isn't alone. Ronon is sitting a few feet from her bed, his gun held loosely in his lap.
This, she had expected.
When he notices that she's awake, Ronon leans forward, meeting her eyes and offering her a genuine smile, despite the way he's adjusted his grip on the gun.
"Morning," he says.
"Is it?" she asks, many other questions inherent in her reply.
"Torren and Teyla and Kanaan are fine," Ronon answers, nodding. "Michael's not."
"Good," she says, shutting her eyes to process the implications. She'd almost hoped that Teyla wouldn't have named her son Torren, that somehow they were different enough that she could have been wrong about that. What she really wants to do is demand to speak with Elizabeth and impress on all of them the necessity of changing their approach to her galaxy, but Elizabeth is gone, and Atlantis isn't even on the same planet as her memories tell her it should be. The many reasons that she does not belong here flood through her mind, but before she can be overwhelmed, two thoughts float to the forefront.
"Ronon, did you stain your own tattoos?"
His quick response simply reinforces the conclusion she's already drawn—she has clearly overstayed her welcome. She still knows him well, whether he is willing to acknowledge that or not, however.
"Because, though Torren is not my son, I still wish to protect his mother's identity as separate from my own, when I leave here."
This proves to be the correct answer, and the conversation that follows is friendly enough that Teyla almost tells Ronon the main reason why she wishes to distinguish her appearance. Whether her virus-poisoned blood will hasten her death at the hands of the Wraith, she doesn't know, but she hopes she'll be able to kill half as many as Ronon has, before the supply of serum Michael had hidden away runs dry.
The night after Teyla's clone is taken out of stasis, Rodney and John take some beer and walk out to the farthest pier to drink it, far enough away that the lights of the city don't obscure the stars they can see in the southern hemisphere.
"So," John says to Rodney when they're both pleasantly buzzed. "What do you think our next crisis will be? Renegade Asurans? The Ori?"
"Don't you dare," Rodney says, pointing an unsteady finger. "Every time you say something like that, I end up building some contraption that you fly off in, all stupidly heroic—"
"That only happened once, Rodney," John says pleasantly.
"Bullshit," Rodney protests. He always swears when he's drunk. John can't help but find it strangely endearing. "I keep a running tally, Colonel Suicide Mission."
"Well, you know, that which doesn't—"
"Kill us?" Rodney interrupts in a voice that's bordering on high pitched. "I'm strong enough, thank you very much."
"I was going to say, 'that which doesn't sexually frustrate us to death,'" John says, lying back and resting his head on his crossed arms. "But—"
Rodney doesn't let him finish, but that doesn't bother John in the slightest. He doesn't plan on telling Rodney that his new habit is to say outrageous things on the hopes that Rodney will interrupt him. It's much healthier than his previous habits, which included running for his life and risking his neck at every opportunity. John doesn't necessarily plan on halting these activities either, but he's got Atlantis, his team, and Rodney, and that's all he really needs to beat the odds, anyway.