By Chandri MacLeod
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Rating: hard R
Categories: angst, hurt/comfort, friendship, team, romance
Warnings: violence, gore, character death, trauma (a detailed depiction of the fallout of PTSD)
Spoilers: through 4.12 Spoils of War
Summary: After Rodney is taken hostage on a trading mission, he starts to fall apart. Will he be able to pull himself together before he's sent back to Earth permanently, or will John have to force him to deal with it? A John and Rodney Visit the Millers story.
Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.
Author's Note: his fic took me a month and a half to write, which for the record is the least time I've ever taken to write anything over 60,000 words long. I thought of this after reading Chelle's A Better Fate; I have some pretty detailed mental backstory for the McKay family, and it always occurred to me that of all people, Rodney has probably been on the edge of a mental breakdown since childood. I wanted to see what would happen if something so bad finally happened that he simply couldn't hold it together anymore. And who better to help him through things than John?
My thanks also to Rachelmanija for her essay on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, without which I could not have written Rodney's breakdown with half as much accuracy.
Keller kicked them out of Atlantis. It wasn't cruel or perfunctory, but that tight-faced, I'm-Really-Actually-Going-To-Enforce-My-Authority-Now expression that Keller put on was pretty final. It wasn't that Rodney didn't like her - because he did, respected her, even - but sometimes he wondered if she wasn't much scarier than she usually came across. She still hesitated to order anyone to do anything and when she got herself all worked up like that, she seemed so uncomfortable about it that most people went along out of guilt. Even Rodney was susceptible to it. At the time, he blamed the lingering effects of the concussion.
It had been Keller who'd told him to contact Jeannie. More specifically, she'd told him to pick a place on Earth or he'd be spending his "vacation" camped out in the forest outside Cheyenne Mountain, she didn't really care. So feeling much put-upon, he'd obeyed, and afterward he'd still felt so put-upon that he'd harangued John into coming, too.
It wasn't as if John had anywhere else to go on Earth, Rodney had pointed out, which had been a low blow, but Rodney was mostly not above dirty tactics if it got him what he wanted. Rodney wanted not to spend three and a half weeks alone with his sister while she complaining about getting kidnapped, blamed everything on him, and talked at length about what a terrible person he was.
Also, he wanted someone with whom he could sneak out and get burgers, because he'd been under threat of vegetarian food from Jeannie since his last visit to Earth.
At least, these were the reasons he listed for John, and if John had doubted any of them, he hadn't said so. If Rodney had doubted any of them, he'd ignored the doubt.
Sam was worried. Rodney might have found that touching if she hadn't been in the middle of helping Keller banish him. She took him aside as they were dialling the Gate, and crossed her arms, and looked awkward, and said: "It's harder than you think it is," and Rodney had stared at her like she was speaking Chinese.
Sam sighed, and frowned at him like he was being difficult on purpose. Under normal circumstances Rodney would have liked to oblige her, because being difficult for Sam was one of his most treasured hobbies, but just then he honestly had no idea what she was talking about.
"McKay," she said, carefully, like she was treading on very thin ground, "one of the reasons I let Dr. Keller convince me you two needed a break is because we haven't got a replacement for Dr. Heightmeyer yet. You know that, right?"
Rodney felt a flush creep up his neck. "Look, I told Keller, I'm fine. If that's what this is about, you can shut down the Gate right now. Let Sheppard go surfing or something without me."
Though even as he said that, he felt an odd lurch in his chest at the idea of John being somewhere else for a month. So he scowled at her. Scowling was always a good fallback; it tended to make people think you were too mean to bother with.
Unfortunately, Sam knew him better than that, and she met him scowl for scowl, but her face looked a bit strained. "Rodney, this isn't negotiable."
"So I've been told," he groused, hitching his bag higher on his shoulder. "But let's stop treating me like an invalid, okay? I'm not going to freak out."
The next look on Sam's face stopped him cold, because for a second she looked like no Sam Carter he'd ever seen, tired and sad and genuinely worried. "Yeah," she said, quietly, "you are. I just thought you'd prefer it if you didn't do it here, where people can see you."
Rodney's face was hot. The bag felt much heavier than it had a minute ago, and at the bottom of the stairs, John was calling for him. "Come on, McKay, we don't have all day!"
Rodney turned to follow, moving on automatic, but Sam stopped him with a hand on his arm. He looked at it like it was some kind of poisonous spider, but she was unintimidated. "McKay," she said, still quietly, "it's a lot easier in the long run, if you just let it happen."
In the end, it was the careful sincerity in her eyes that made him angry, and he jerked his arm free, stomping down the stairs towards the Gate, where John was waiting.
When they landed in Vancouver, it was raining.
The city was beautiful, though, he'd been honest about that much. Even in the rain, which slacked off as they rode into the city, green everywhere, and warm breezes, and people. Rodney did not, as a rule, like people, but just now there was something comforting about knowing there were people ten feet away wherever he went. He really hoped this would pass, because it could get old, fast.
Jeannie's house was in one of those comfortably crowded neighbourhoods with old houses and mid-size yards and people walking tiny dogs everywhere you looked. It was quiet, relative to downtown, though he could hear the distant hiss of traffic as he made his way up the front walk. John finished paying the driver, and jogged to catch up as the car rumbled away down the street.
Rodney didn't need to knock, because as they were climbing the steps, Jeannie opened the door, and Madison cannoned out onto the porch, stopping just short of Rodney, who took an alarmed step backwards before forcibly stopping himself, heart hammering. Madison looked up at him suspiciously. "Hi, Uncle Mer," she said, and Rodney swallowed, wordlessly reached into his pocket, handed her a badly-wrapped package.
She practically trilled. "Thanks, Uncle Mer!" she shouted, running back into the house. Jeannie tilted her head at him.
"Is that going to explode and burn my house down?" she asked, eyes narrowed.
Rodney huffed. "Yes, because I would give a five-year-old something that explodes. It's a Rubik's Cube, all right?"
Jeannie still looked sceptical. "She's five, Meredith," she said.
"Yeah," Rodney shot back, "and she's your kid."
Jeannie shut her mouth at that, and looked surprised, and Rodney realised, belatedly, that he'd just said something nice. "Can we come in?" he asked, sullenly, and Jeannie laughed, and stepped aside.
The planet has a green sky, kind of like pistachio ice cream, and Rodney remembers explaining that to John even though John doesn't ask. He's in a good mood, not even complaining about the heat, talking just to hear himself talk. Teyla is nodding politely and smiling her soft, indulgent smile all the way into the city, past unremarkable near-desert scrub and the unending roll of low hills.
They're met on the main street by People In Charge and she goes smoothly into negotiation mode - which is how Rodney thinks of it, how she gracefully ingratiates herself with most total strangers - and by nightfall they're getting a tour of the capitol.
It looks like Ava's hovering around the 1960s to him; everything is bevel-cornered and chrome-chased, the colours riotous and clashing over an underlying skeleton of tourist-Victorian cobblestones and architecture. It makes him think of Brighton, but with that slightly off sense every alien world has, no matter how familiar it appears.
According to Hergaard, a skinny anthropologist Rodney's decided not to actively dislike only because he hasn't done anything stupid yet, the Avans have a directed social development more along the lines of western Europe, egalitarian but not communistic, whatever that means.
All it means to Rodney is that their social development is further ahead than their technological development, which is great, he guesses, but not all that interesting, and not really worth his input. Ronon is listening, but not really listening, one hand as always resting gently on his holster. John doesn't seem all that much more interested than Rodney, but he's nodding politely along, perking up every so often when their guide mentions unique cultural points like their breweries, because apparently Ava has a pretty complicated culinary culture, or the fact that Ava has a Guild of Courtesans, along with their Guild of Engineers, their Guild of Healers, their Guild of Scribes and about two dozen others.
Rodney knows he should find that interesting, but he's actually too bored to think about the myriad possibilities of legalized prostitution. All Rodney gets out of the talk is that Ava? Has a lot of Guilds.
High Minister Sarna herself takes them on a walk down the main street that girdles the entire city, sixty blocks long and with all the major dispensaries and manufactories clustered, which even Rodney can see is pretty smart. It's not until Sarna's aide leads them up fifteen thousand eighty-five or something stairs - which leaves Rodney cranky, but if he does say so himself, not in nearly as bad a shape as he would have been a year ago - into the main control room of the main Avan power station that Rodney's suddenly paying attention, because aesthetically it looks Lantean but functionally it looks like nothing so much as an actual working solar array.
He starts firing off questions at the engineers and after a few seconds of stunned silence, Sarna turns to leave, saying she'll send someone to collect Rodney and his staff when it's time for the evening meal - they've been invited to eat with the Parliament. John just smiles, shakes his head, and leaves Rodney alone to order people around. Rodney shoots him a grin as he leaves, and bends to inspect the array more closely, mind already providing him with the myriad ways they could use an adaptable solar power generator back home.
He pauses for one second at that, fingers resting gently on the outer casing of the core, because not for one moment did it feel strange to think of Atlantis as home.
By evening on the first day, Rodney generally thought he was doing fine, and was well into the second paragraph of his mental letter to Keller, telling her how wrong, wrong, wrong she was. A little insomnia and jumpiness was to be expected, after what had happened, but forcible exile to another planet had seemed way beyond harsh. Just went to show that the woman wasn't really settled in, yet, or she'd be used to the way things were in the Pegasus Galaxy. You didn't run home and hide under the bed every time somebody pointed a gun at you. You'd never leave the house.
He was still pretty much furious about Sam going along with it, though. That was the only part that really confused him. Five or six years ago he would have put it down to jealousy, or written it off as revenge like he had for the first four months in Siberia.
He paused in the act of unpacking, a shirt hanging half-folded from his hand. God, he'd hated Russia. For one thing, it was always cold, and regardless of how many times John teased him about hating the cold ("You're a Canadian, Rodney. Shouldn't you be used to it?" "Just because you can't convert Fahrenheit to Celsius without calculator doesn't mean the temperature actually drops twenty degrees at the 49th Parallel, smartass."), he'd always been more than willing to remind anyone listening that Victoria was in a moderate climactic zone and in no way prepared one for life on the tundra. Also, Russia had terrible food, utterly unreliable hot water and plenty of people who had absolutely no reason to hide their contempt for him, unlike working for the American military where at least people were occasionally intimidated by him.
He'd been angry the whole time, but he'd been incredibly miserable, too; it had been the first time his personality had gotten him actually punished, instead of put out of earshot. It had stung more than he'd ever be willing to admit, because he'd been more than a little in love with Samantha Carter at the time (well, in something, anyway), and it had not dawned on him yet that antagonism was counterproductive when it came to making people like you. He'd never thought about making people like him. In his mind, either they did, or they didn't, and if they didn't, it was their own fault.
But that had been a long time ago, and if asked, now, he'd have said he was a different person than he'd been then. Different enough that sometimes remembering his first visit to the SGC made him just the tiniest bit ashamed of himself. Enough that once in a blue moon he wondered why no one seemed to have noticed the change.
It wasn't unusual, though. No one had ever noticed him before, unless they had to.
I am not a fourteen-year-old girl, he thought firmly, and took the few strides across Jeannie's painfully-neat guestroom to open the dresser, deciding to appropriate the top row of drawers for himself. He cast an eye over John's duffle, still leaning against the wall near the door. That was what he got for dawdling.
He sat down on the bed, staring at the open drawer. No matter how many times he'd insisted to the contrary, Sam wasn't an idiot. She had to have had some reason for this, even if he could more easily write off Keller's orders as gross overreaction. And he could no longer bring himself to just write it off as some kind of malice or jealousy. Time had served to make him understand that Samantha Carter was nothing if not soft-hearted. Didn't mean she couldn't be wrong.
He was fine.
The knock on the door sent his heart leaping painfully into his throat, and he was half-turned as it opened just enough to admit John's head and shoulders. He froze, his eyes wide, his right hand clutching at the flowered bedspread and his left hand pressed hard to his chest.
He felt the moment of ridiculous terror pass almost from a distance, cataloguing the speed of his pulse, the flushed, clammy feeling that washed over him and then leached away in the wake of three slow, forced breaths.
"You surprised me!" he accused, more loudly than he'd intended, and John looked abruptly concerned — in the abstract way John did "concerned," a mere twitch of his eyebrows, eyes running over Rodney up and down in the way that usually had heat suffusing his face for entirely different reasons.
"You okay?" he asked, voice low, and then Rodney was angry again, was up and shoving past him, and stomping towards the sound of voices floating up from downstairs.
"Fine," he hissed, and left John standing there without even looking back.
It's supposed to be a peaceful mission, a reasonably industrial planet which means no sleeping on the ground and a greatly-reduced likelihood of mortally offending alien priestesses. It means actual beds for two nights while Rodney, Zelenka, Simpson, Miko, Ager and one of the two scrawny Norwegians whose names John hasn't learned yet pore over Ava City's central generator. According to Rodney it's impossibly efficient and adapted from Ancient technology even Rodney's never heard of, and impressive, even for a planet living in the 1960s or thereabouts.
John likes Ava, likes their beer and their paved, crowded streets and that for once, they're absolutely not the centre of attention, the Avans passing them by on their way to and from work and home and school as if they are of no interest at all. They were given a tour of the city, whereupon Rodney went suddenly dewy-eyed over the Avan power generation systems. After that, Rodney spends two days hunched over the power core with his staff and the Avan scientists while John and Ronon and Teyla and the other scrawny Norwegian - whose name is apparently Hergaard - discuss trade with the High Minister, a greying, round-shouldered woman named Sarna, who treats them with brusque, dismissive warmness and is delightfully rude.
John likes her, even while she's verbally lambasting her political opponent in the upcoming election and talking tiredly of minor civil uprisings on the eastern continent. "Separatists," she says dismissively. "No accounting for them." She hurries to assure them that the rebels, a new phenomenon and ineffectual thus far, would find the Lanteans of little interest.
Ava has some kind of supposedly-infallible defence against the Wraith, which Sarna flatly refuses to discuss. John makes a note to find out about anyway, if he can; they detected nothing of the sort from the Stargate, but Ava hasn't been culled in centuries.
Instead, they talk about packaged food and power cells and a drug the Avans have that sounds like it holds off infection better than penicillin, and John neatly sidesteps questions about where he and Rodney really come from while Teyla and Ronon talk about their battles with the Wraith. Sarna's a smart lady, knows what not to ask, when not to ask it. She knows all about them she needs to know, and anyway, she confides with a wink, she likes them.
When the ground shakes, short, sharp, and sudden, late in the morning of the third day, John is on his feet and running before the people on the street have even started screaming. Smoke is rising from the central power station, a hard-edged black gash in the pale green sky.
He'd caught himself obsessively watching Rodney's behaviour for changes from the moment he'd woken up in the infirmary four weeks ago, but shortly given up feeling guilty about it. It didn't matter why he was doing it, he told himself, just that he knew where Rodney was, and that he was in one piece.
Rodney had actually been more or less normal on the trip to Earth, though John supposed that he'd been angry, and for Rodney anger was pretty much like good booze, which had to have helped. There were differences, though; Rodney had always been paranoid, but before he'd been proud of it, and now he denied being startled or frightened, even when it showed plainly on his face, because everything did.
Rodney's moment of panic on the front porch was telling, something that had apparently not gone unnoticed, evident in how careful Jeannie was being. Rodney and Jeannie were actually pretty physical, or at least Jeannie was, which had more than once made John wonder just how different her relationship with their parents had been. Jeannie touched people; grabbed hands, touched shoulders, and before, had habitually given Rodney a cuff on the back of the head or a flick on the ear or a pinch on the arm whenever he said something particularly insensitive.
It was normal, John could always tell, because Jeannie didn't seem to think about it; Jeannie hugged as easily as she slapped. In Rodney's case, both always seemed to be affectionate, executed with a certain grimness as if she were making up for lost time, doing something for Rodney's own good. So it was customary, but Rodney always looked surprised by either kind of contact.
Eventually it dawned on John that Rodney always looked surprised when anyone touched him. When they'd met, Rodney had projected an aura of repulsion obvious to anyone, an unconscious flashing neon sign broadcasting don't touch me, stay away. But after growing to know him better, John had come to suspect it was largely self-defence. Meeting Rodney's sister had cemented the observation.
Afterwards John had found himself making excuses to touch Rodney more often; a pat on the shoulder, a clap on the back, a squeeze to the arm, sitting in slightly closer proximity. Teyla and Ronon had seemed to pick up on it and done the same, knowing or unknowing. If Rodney had noticed, he hadn't let on, but he had become marginally more relaxed over time, at least with them. John tried not to think too hard about how he'd no trouble at all coming up with excuses.
Jeannie hadn't hit Rodney once since they'd arrived, though, which relaxed John considerably. She did seem to be watching both John and her brother as carefully as John was watching Rodney, and John made a mental note to expect a conversation in the near future, if the sly, worried look she was wearing meant anything. It seemed Rodney didn't notice her being careful, though, probably because she seemed to have decided to make up for it by picking fights.
Rodney and Jeannie argued constantly, in a friendly, comfortable way that John found weirdly adorable. It wasn't exactly bickering, which didn't really go anywhere, because when Rodney and Jeannie argued it was toward an end, usually to fix something or make something or establish something. It could go on for hours, and John found it almost comforting, familiar ambient noise like a television turned on in the background. He sat at the kitchen table with Madison, shelling peas into a big green bowl, because Jeannie was one of those strange people who got everyone involved in the preparation of a meal.
Just now, they were arguing about hockey. John wasn't paying that much attention until he realised they were comparing statistics. Then the words "New York Rangers," and "bloody Americans" came up, and John felt honour-bound to say something, even if it was something unintelligent, like:
"I always thought 'Canuck' was a weird name for a sports team. What does it even mean?"
The sudden mute horror that descended on the kitchen was funny, but John restrained himself. "You shouldn't say that, Uncle John," said Madison solemnly, shaking a finger at him in a way that had to be inherited.
John smirked, and then pointed his own finger at Rodney. "I happen to know you don't even like hockey."
Rodney gave him a scornful look. "I'm not convinced anyone actually likes hockey," he said easily. "But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the geometric appli—"
Jeannie cut him off, rolling her eyes. "The thing is, insulting the Canucks is sort of like setting books on fire. It's just not something you do."
John absolutely did not pout at Rodney's sister. "You just spent fifteen minutes talking about how much they suck," he pointed out.
Jeannie shrugged. "Yes," she said, in the same gentle tones she used with her five-year-old daughter, as though he weren't quite clever enough to understand, "but that's us. You're an American. It's different."
Belatedly John picked up on the delicate emphasis: It's not something you do. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.
"I thought you two grew up in..." John pretended to search his memory, and then looked at Madison for help.
"Victoria," supplied Madison cheerfully, without looking up. "On Vancouver Island. I've been there. They have a submarine in the museum and it goes down into the harbour." She pointed vaguely west with one hand, the other using a pea pod to mimic a descending sub, complete with sound effects.
Rodney made a characteristically dismissive gesture with one hand. "Don't be ridiculous, Victoria doesn't have a hockey team. It's twenty blocks square."
"And I wouldn't go around badmouthing the Canucks where people can hear you," Jeannie added warningly. "People get a bit funny around the season, especially if they know you're an American."
John grinned at her. "Is it that obvious?"
"Yes," said Rodney, deadpan.
Both of them were wearing such identically ominous expressions that John couldn't help laughing. But Rodney shook his head, sober. "I'm telling you," he muttered, "rioting in the street."
Rodney is elbows-deep in the power core when the air starts to hum. He doesn't hear it at first, but feels it in the floor, buzzing up through his knees and into his spine and making his teeth hurt.
"What's that noise?" he asks of the air, because it's now starting to be really uncomfortable. On the other side of the room, Miko is making a pained face and covering her ears.
It's a second before the Avan technician working next to him jerks back out of the machine, jumping to his feet, looking up as if he expects the ceiling to fall. Rodney does likewise, because he's not an idiot. There's another noise now, on a lower register, distant shouts and bangs.
Zelenka rises to his feet, looking perplexed, glancing from the ceiling, to Rodney's face. "Rodney?" he asks, "what is happening? Are you in pain?"
Rodney's about to snap that no, he makes faces like these for fun, and then suddenly there's gunfire and something scorches his cheek and people are shouting.
And then someone - he thinks Simpson - is pulling him down to the floor as it shakes, hard, beneath them.
Five seconds later someone else entirely is pointing a gun in his face and screaming. He hits his head, or something hits him, and he slips away from the world into the dark.
He's only out for a few minutes, he's told, and while waking up to Zelenka's face is not one of Rodney's fondest fantasies he'll take what he can get once he's awake, because they're surrounded by crazy people with guns.
The rebels, at a glance, make Rodney think of pictures he's seen of guerrilla soldiers during... god what was the last ridiculous American police action? Rodney's first impression is of a collection of dirt-streaked faces and sweat-stained motley, and they're not wearing uniforms, but there's a certain common concession to simple cuts and heavy boots and body armour even Rodney can tell has been scrounged from a discard bin somewhere. They've got the hollow-eyed look of desperate men, which is the first thing that makes his hands want to shake, but they don't, because you don't show hostage-takers you're afraid, even if you are.
Their leader comes striding into the control room five minutes after the explosion, and the wind is shrieking at irregular intervals through the broken window, raising gooseflesh on Rodney's arms. The Avan scientists are whimpering and huddled together, and one woman screams and then starts to cry when he pulls back his hood.
Rodney doesn't see what's so goddamned special. The rebel leader looks like a filing clerk while he has his thugs point a gun at each of the scientists in turn, pointedly ignoring the Lanteans while he questions them, but none of them say a word, except for the weeping blonde, who really just babbles. The chief technician Orsa, a bland brown-haired man who was previously finding Rodney at least a little amusing, is white-faced and shaking with fury.
"Who the hell are you people?" Rodney demands loudly, wincing as the volume actually hurts his own ears, and he instinctively covers them with his hands until the wave of dizziness subsides. What is that? Why is he dizzy? Is he concussed?
But the leader sees him and looks thoughtful, and then delighted
"My name is Eron Vaal," he says, with chilling courtesy. "Welcome to Ava, Doctor McKay."
It takes Rodney about thirteen minutes, while Vaal and his men secure things and discuss things or whatever terrorists do when they've just captured a power station, to work out that only the ATA carriers in their party - himself and Miko - felt the device (whatever it was) powering up. Which means that it's Ancient. Which means, fuck, that it's probably going to be hard to find and deactivate.
Assuming there's any of it left. The north side of the tower is gone, open to the air and the city thirty stories below, and there are little patches of smouldering floor between where they're kneeling and the drop-off. There's still a faint, irritating buzz in his ears, though, or not really his ears, he supposes.
Orsa explained it to them before they started working; that the array is automatically made independent of the city during an emergency, and this is an emergency. That the lockdown protocol will keep anyone from going in or out, and is on a timer that can't be deactivated from the outside or the inside.
That nobody will be coming to rescue them, and he figures that out right before Vaal tells him, smugly, that they are his prisoners. That the tower is under his control. That the city is helpless.
"How do you know who I am?" Rodney asks, approximately eighty thousand horrible, paranoid possibilities racing through his mind, but they're better than thinking about right now.
"You're quite well known, Doctor McKay," Vaal tells him, still smiling that stupid, self-congratulatory smile, and even Rodney, who doesn't consider himself a particularly violent person, wants to punch him, repeatedly, until he stops moving.
"When one is planning a revolution, one seeks out whatever resources one might, and you might be interested to know that there's more than one party offering substantial rewards for the delivery of any Lantean." He pauses to study his nails, and adds: "Dead or alive. But the price is higher for alive."
"So this was all some big set-up to get me?" And he knows how it sounds, because he's had it explained, how it sounds, but let's be honest, it's not the first time it's ever happened.
To his right, Zelenka still manages to shoot him a deeply sarcastic look, even with one hand pressed to the cut on his temple and one lens of his glasses cracked down the middle. Shut up, Rodney thinks at him furiously, shut up, shut up, this is not the time, you can make fun of me later. But there's still something comforting in the way that Radek can still manage to prick holes in him with this many guns aimed in their direction.
To his - he thinks - relief, Vaal laughs. Rodney's not a - okay, he is an insufferably proud man, but it still makes him flush with embarrassment. "No," Vaal says, "this was a genuine political uprising, Doctor McKay. Minister Sarna was meant to be touring this station today, but it seems your arrival has caused her to re-arrange her schedule. But our secondary objectives have so far been successful."
"The power station," mutters Zelenka.
"The power station," agrees Vaal, and leers at Rodney again. Rodney doesn't think he means to be leering, but that's how it comes out. Rodney doesn't trust people who can't control their facial expressions. "And your presence is an unexpected bonus, though I admit I was hoping for Major Sheppard too."
"He's a Colonel now," Rodney corrects automatically.
Vaal ignores him. "The tower will remain in lockdown until it is released from within - which is impossible," he counts off on his fingers, "until the time limit has passed, or until you, Doctor McKay, aid us in unlocking our treasure."
"Unlocking your—" Rodney never knows what to say when the bad guys talk like this. The instinct is to laugh, because god, they sound like bad cartoon villains, but they're in the Pegasus galaxy, where no one has ever heard of Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom. Sometimes sincerity is so tragic, but sometimes it just scares the crap out of him. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Vaal nods to one of his thugs, who disappears briefly into the adjoining alcove, and returns a moment later with... well, it looks like a vacuum cleaner, at first glance, matte-silver and vaguely spherical. It's unquestionably Ancient, though - Rodney's spent too many years absorbing the Ancient aesthetic sense not to recognise the curving lines, the pale colours of the thing sitting on the circular centre console.
It's about the size of a breadbox, and that thought skitters with hysterical laughter across the surface of his brain, because somewhere, somehow, something had to be the same size as a breadbox.
"What is it?" he asks, curious despite himself.
"We believe it's a transportation device, something that would be extremely useful in our campaigns," Vaal tells him. "This world was once a colony of the Ancestors, Doctor McKay. There's a great number of their lost devices buried in the ruins along the eastern coast, but only members of the Guilds are allowed to retrieve them." He spares a nasty look for the huddled Avan technicians.
"The device we uncovered on the coast was much like this one," he points at the breadbox, "but it was damaged beyond repair, and our intelligence told us another of its kind had been brought to the city."
Rodney stares at it. "And you want me to what - kiss it better?"
"Your knowledge of the Ancestors' technology is renowned, Doctor," Vaal says, raising his eyebrows. "In any case, none of my men - nor almost anyone on Ava - has the power to activate most of the Ancestors' machines."
He looks significantly at Rodney, who feels suddenly angry. He's going to have to have a talk with John about sticking his finger into every Ancient light socket he comes across, if everything they say and do is now being shared on the Pegasus Galaxy supervillain mailing list.
"What makes you think I—" he says, hardly stuttering at all, but gives it up when Vaal inclines his head in a gesture that says, with all the clarity of speech, that Rodney is being both ridiculous and trying, and there's a flash of something else that sets Rodney's fingers twitching for the sidearm they took away from him twenty minutes ago.
"Look," he amends, he thinks remarkably steadily, given the circumstances, "whatever moronic plan you have, you might as well toss it right now, because in about ten minutes our people are going to be busting in here with all sorts of Ancient weapons..." He trails off, because Vaal is looking both stormy and amused.
"Were you not listening, Rodney?" hisses Zelenka. "We are locked in."
"Correct," says Vaal, slapping his own knee. "In any case, the Parliament has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists." He spits the words, like they taste foul. "We're stuck in here, unless you find us a way out."
"Me?" Rodney sputters, "are you completely insane? Why would I..."
Vaal has gotten easily to his feet. He's not tall, but he's got an easy lift to his shoulders, and the half-dozen men with him look to him instinctively. He might look like a filing clerk but Rodney's been in Pegasus long enough to recognise hero worship, and even when it might be justifiable.
Vaal might be a fucking psychopath but his men believe in him, and god help them all, he's sincere.
He's calm-faced as he turns back to the Avans and asks: "Can you disable the lockout?" and the technicians are silent, except for Orsa, who straightens his shoulders and spits on the guy's boot.
Rodney really, truly doesn't see it coming, though he knows he should have. Vaal goes hard-eyed, and quick as a whisper of air, pulls out a knife and slashes Orsa's throat, ear to ear.
It's one quick movement, no wasted energy, the arm goes up, and left, and down, and Orsa is on the floor bleeding and choking and twitching, but not for very long. The time between the spitting and the gurgling is maybe four seconds.
Rodney jerks back from the body, which falls at his knees, and almost knocks over Simpson, who has both hands pressed tightly to her mouth. Rodney thinks for a moment, with conviction, that he might throw up. Knives are so much untidier than gunfire.
Behind him, Miko makes a tiny noise of dismay, and Rodney thinks the temperature in the room has dropped for a few seconds before he realises that no, it's him that's gone cold.
"You will repair the device," he eventually hears Vaal saying, and he looks up into cold dark eyes with no hint of patience or mercy in them. "You will transport us out of here. And I will kill one person every hour until you do."
He feels his team - his team, Zelenka and Simpson and Miko and Ager and even the new guy, what the hell's his name, Henriksson - frozen behind him, and it feels as if everything has stopped, but he knows it's only wishful thinking.
A few harsh, constricted breaths later, he's moving after all, reaching for his tablet and plugging it into the device. His head is still hurting, and hurting worse with the persistent buzz in his ears. He watches as string after string of base eight Ancient code jitters across his screen.
Rodney fucking hates base eight.
Madison solved the Rubik's Cube by suppertime, and came running into the dining room to plunk it proudly down next to Rodney's plate. "Have you got another one?" she asked expectantly, and Rodney grinned, involuntarily.
"I—" he tried, and then: "not with me."
"Oh." Madison looked disappointed, and then turned to her mother for an appeal.
"Mad, be grateful," Jeannie chided, looking amused. "Go wash your hands."
Madison went, placidly enough with only a hint of a pout, but Rodney picked up the cube and turned it over in his hands. He caught Jeannie's eye and grinned at her with his I-told-you-so face, but Jeannie just went on looking amused.
"What?" she asked, smirking as she reached for his plate. "I should feel thwarted? I didn't say she wasn't smart."
"Uh huh," Rodney said, handing it over. "I'm just remembering that of the two of us who could do secondary algebra at five, it wasn't you."
"Uh huh," Jeannie rolled her eyes. "And of the two of us who could spell, it wasn't you."
To his left, John pretended to have a coughing fit into his napkin. Kaleb played along, and pounded John on the back.
After they lost Elizabeth, there had been a period of almost a month where Rodney thought he saw her everywhere he looked. Kate — before she died too, of course — had thought it had something to do with him blaming himself, which hadn't exactly been high-end psychology, as he'd pointed out. Of course he blamed himself. It was his job to fix things, and he hadn't.
He'd stopped seeing her, but after Ava it had been days before he realised that the only dreams he was remembering were ones about Elizabeth.
He'd been annoyed by that. It had seemed so incongruous. Of all the faces he could have seen, Elizabeth's was the last on his mental list. He'd have expected Simpson's, or Miko's, or even Ager. But it was Elizabeth who was there again and again, half-lit in a dark room while Rodney sat in silence. She never said anything, just kept her hand on his arm and smiled at him.
He stopped having the dreams when they came to Earth — had given up on sleeping for more than an hour at a time, for that matter — but he didn't stop thinking about them. Even began to miss them, because what he saw when he did sleep were not nearly so pleasant. The Elizabeth dreams were weird, disturbing, sure, but they were relatively peaceful. They never made him wake up sweating and terrified.
It might just have been that Elizabeth was gone. He wondered when, in his mind, he'd started equating "most of us are alive" with "everything will be okay." It wasn't even all of them; somewhere in his head he'd compiled a list of all the people he considered necessary to the ongoing cohesion of his personal universe. First, always first, was John. Elizabeth; Teyla, Ronon; Radek, Carson. Jeannie, even when they were fighting. Madison. Sam.
When they'd lost Carson and then Elizabeth, so close together, things had been suddenly different. Not impossible, but different. The world had taken on a new edge of constant, low-level urgency. He could no longer delude himself that they were safe, even for a second. But there were things close enough to safe that he could still get up every day and do his work and sleep at night. Things like realising that he suddenly, despite his best efforts to the contrary, had friends, or something close. That some of them even occasionally seemed to like having him around for other than purely practical reasons.
He'd long been highly-thought-of by a lot of people, but despite a certain amount of self-admitted arrogance he was smart enough to realise that that applied to his talents, not his person. This new state of affairs had come as a surprise. Not that he'd ever say that kind of thing out loud. He'd spent too many years being the only person who took care of Rodney McKay to risk such a declaration.
He stayed at the table as supper was cleared up around him, with both hands curled possessively around a cup of Kaleb's very, very good coffee. Little as he liked that his sister had married an English professor (not even a full professor yet), the man had excellent taste in coffee.
Rodney spent twenty minutes communing with his third cup of... well, he'd already forgotten what it was called. It was good, though. That was all that mattered. Rodney was absolutely certain it was fair trade and organic, despite tasting like the kind of coffee that usually had to be carried on foot up the South American coast by indentured orphans.
Kaleb seemed to look upon sharing his extremely rare coffee ("I practically had to have it smuggled in, but I have connections," he'd confided) as some kind of peace offering. Rodney was still thinking about it.
He could hear Madison making what was sure to be a very cheerful mess in the kitchen, where she, Kaleb and John (at Madison's insistence) were doing the dishes. He could hear a lot of splashing and girlish giggling and chose to believe that at least some of it was John's.
Jeannie wiped down the table and started stripping off the tablecloth, which had suffered a significant Madison-related spill, and Rodney watched her out of the corner of his eye. He never would have made up with Jeannie again, either, if it hadn't been for Atlantis. If it hadn't been for John.
He didn't notice that Jeannie had sat down next to him until she touched his arm. He didn't jump, didn't spill his coffee — which at that moment was his paramount concern — but he was sure she felt the tensing of muscles under her hand, because she removed the hand after only a second.
"Meredith, are you okay?" she asked, sounding a little shaken. He glanced at her face, and though he was ready for it he still hated the careful, worried look on her face. He was so sick of people looking worried about him he could just throw up.
Instead, he took a scalding gulp of coffee and didn't even whimper when it burned his tongue. "I really wish everyone would stop asking me that," he muttered.
Jeannie glanced up as a squeal from the kitchen signalled another minor flood, and sighed. "You've been acting weird, Mer. What am I supposed to say?"
"You could say nothing," he suggested, without much hope. "You could just let me enjoy my vacation."
"You haven't been to see me for anything short of a life-threatening situation in three years — not that I don't appreciate it," she amended quickly, with a brief bright smile, "but the sudden desire to visit, on top of all the... well, Mer, you're worrying me."
He stared down into his cup, and said nothing, until she pressed: "Something happened, didn't it? Something... worse," in a quiet, careful voice.
"A lot of things have happened," he muttered, and pushed the cup away from him.
Jeannie sighed; her tolerant, I-don't-know-why-I-put-up-with-you sigh. "I know a lot of things happen to you out there that you can't talk about, Mer, but some things I think I have a right to know about."
She looked more annoyed than worried, now, but she reached carefully out and touched the scar on his forearm, the one he'd gotten courtesy of Kolya, and had that really been three years ago? She'd asked about with wide eyes the first time she came to Atlantis, and he'd told her firmly to stop asking about it.
He pulled his arm away with a hiss. "Oh, yes? And what makes you think that?"
Jeannie remained unmoved, watching him. "Aside from the fact that some of it got me kidnapped in the recent past, how about the fact that you're my brother and I worry about you?"
"I can't—" he began, staring at her in frank astonishment. He wanted to say something, felt he should, because when people said things like that you were supposed to say something back...
But then he was scowling again, down at the table, shaking his head. To his left, Jeannie sighed again, a real sigh, and she rubbed hard at the bridge of her nose for a second before fixing him again with a look Rodney could only qualify as resigned.
"Everything okay in here?"
John's voice, above all careful, and Rodney looked up to see him standing in the door to the kitchen, drying his hands on a striped dishtowel.
Jeannie just sighed again and got up, moving past him and calling out to Madison: "Time for your bath, Mad."
The ensuing argument was cover enough for John to follow Rodney out of the dining room, down the corridor, and most of the way up the stairs. "Rodney," he said warningly, and Rodney stopped halfway up and whirled on him.
"What?" he demanded.
John's eyebrows rose a little, and he did that thing with his mouth that meant Rodney was being particularly frustrating. John had almost as many ways of implying things with his eyebrows as he did of using Rodney's name. "You gonna tell me what all that was about?"
"What what was about?" sneered Rodney, with such force that John swayed backwards. For a second it looked like he might fall, and with a sudden breathless vision of John concussed on the hall floor Rodney reached out and seized his arm to pull him back up.
But even as he touched him, John caught his balance with an easy hand on the banister. Rodney was breathing hard, and he couldn't seem to let go. Couldn't seem to make his fingers do what he was telling them, or his lungs, or his legs.
He didn't even realise John was talking until he felt himself being guided to a seat on the middle step, and opened his eyes to see John crouching down in front of him. "Rodney?" he was saying, in a low, soft voice, "can you hear me?"
John had turned his arm in Rodney's grip, so that he was gripping back, thumb rhythmically stroking the inside of Rodney's wrist. His other hand was on Rodney's knee. It felt cold.
"Of course I can hear you," he whispered irritably, but his chest still felt tight.
"Rodney, you're having a panic attack," John explained calmly. "I need you to take slow, deep breaths..."
"I'm not having a—" Rodney protested, but John squeezed his arm, gave him a look like a challenge.
"Then do what I say, and prove me wrong," he murmured, and Rodney did it out of pure spite. He was annoyed when it helped, when he could breathe again and John was tilting up one corner of his mouth in that not-quite-smile that was John's version of I-told-you-so. "You okay?"
"I really, sincerely would like people to stop asking me that," Rodney said weakly, and looked down at where he was still gripping John's arm, John who had made no move to pull away.
"Yeah, well, it's kind of why we came," John pointed out, reasonably.
Rodney stared at John's hand at his arm for several long seconds, the novelty of being touched warring against the instinct to be angry about being coddled. "I'm very tired," he said eventually, and even he could hear the pleading note in his voice. But he was tired, too tired to feel embarrassed as John peered closely into his face, sighed, and let go.
Suddenly even bad dreams seemed like small trade-off for a little peace and quiet.
John went back downstairs for an hour, to give Rodney time to drop off — assuming he would. He helped Kaleb dry the dishes and put them away, and took the bright blue plastic recycling bin down the curb in front of the house.
Coming back inside, he met Jeannie at the foot of the stairs. She gave him a searching look, but just shook her head and left him with a "good night, John."
Finally there was nothing for John to do but turn in, and so he did, slipping into the room silently, changing into shorts and a t-shirt, and sliding into the bed where Rodney was curled up on the far side of the mattress with his eyes shut, apparently asleep. John followed him after a minute or two.
He'd already suspected Rodney wasn't sleeping - had been suspecting it before Keller pulled him aside to lay it out for him, the reasons Rodney had to stop, had to go away for a while. By the second night on Earth, he was sure, because it had taken John that long to adjust to the unfamiliar solar rotation — even if Earth never quite felt right anymore — and Rodney had still not slept through eight hours, not even five, not even two, not once.
They'd spent a night at Cheyenne Mountain when they'd arrived, because "accumulated leave" didn't qualify them for a quick trip via Asgard beam and they'd had to wait for a commercial flight cross-country. They'd been assigned separate rooms, but John had heard the base personnel complaining that Rodney had been up at all hours pestering the night shift.
He'd been off-world with Rodney enough times to know that when Rodney slept, he slept like the dead. Even, heavy breathing, but the rest of him still, at peace, in sharpest contrast to Rodney while awake, when the only right words invoked motion and energy: Frenzy. Babble. Passion. Delight. Sometimes he had bad dreams, slept uneasily; everyone did. But it rarely manifested as anything more troubling than tiny whimpers, almost childlike, and Rodney always slept with a faint frown of concentration on his face, but he didn't scream, didn't thrash, didn't shudder.
It was the trembling that woke John, Rodney's shoulder pressed hard between his shoulder blades, his upper body curled desperately into the pillow, his mouth open and a steady stream of incomprehensible not-quite-words spilling out into the dark. He knew it was a nightmare in a second, not just a bad dream, but a nightmare. He could see the guttural horror written into the lines of Rodney's face, and after a moment he imagined he could almost feel it, because the hair on his own neck rose and he shivered, even in the still summer heat of Jeannie's guestroom.
Deciding to wake him, even with a gentle touch and a whisper of his name, was dangerous, but John was ready, hands already reaching as Rodney flailed at him with his eyes still screwed shut, because he knew it was coming. He knew the absurd strength terror could give a man, knew that Rodney would wake up breathing hard, fists clenched, ready to fight, as he did.
But John caught his wrists easily, held them for a few terrifying heartbeats as Rodney twitched, heaved, whimpered, and finally came awake gasping. In the dim light of the room, the blue eyes were startling and pale, just a ring of colour around pupils gone huge with panic.
John held on as tightly as he dared until Rodney blinked, blinked again, and then recognised him. He swallowed hard, Adam's apple bobbing, and croaked: "John?"
"Right in one. That's why you're a genius," John murmured, slowly letting go of Rodney's wrists, sliding his hands up the forearms, stroking gently but firmly. Rodney's fingers clutched, and closed around John's arms. "Bad dream?"
For the space of a breath John saw Rodney about to recoil, about to get angry, but in the end he stared nakedly into John's eyes for a second before bending his head into the space between them. John slid his hands up to Rodney's shoulders, still stroking, grounding him. Nakedly. It was the only word that fit, sending blood flooding into his face, but he didn't pull away.
"I don't want to talk about it," Rodney said eventually, in a muffled voice.
John drew breath automatically to say that he should, that he'd have to, eventually, but the pressure of Rodney's fingers around his arms, the heat of his body, stopped him, made him hesitate just long enough to make it too late to say it.
"Okay," he said. "Okay." He pressed a hand to the back of Rodney's neck, damp with sweat. "Are you..."
The laughter startled him, but not for long. "I'm so tired," Rodney told him, hoarsely.
"Go to sleep," John told him, thumb moving slowly at the nape of Rodney's neck. Rodney was a solid, radiating presence in his arms, and the moment of heated embarrassment had passed. Now he was growing drowsy on his own account, and under his hands he could feel Rodney's pulse slowing, his breathing even out.
When Rodney spoke again, it was slurred, and John couldn't see his face. "Thanks."
"S'nothing," John told the top of his head, "Do it for anyone."
That got him the faintest vibration of laughter, but not the sound, and gradually he realised Rodney had dropped off. He firmly ignored the tingle of guilt at the back of his head, because it was true, John would have done it for anyone. Just maybe not with so little hesitation.
The Avans, as it turns out, are telepaths, or something close enough that Sarna's aide can shut his eyes and tell her that most of the scientists are still alive. John grabs his arm and demands to know what "most" means, while wondering how they could spend three days on this planet and nobody told them about all the mind-reading.
"No Avan of any conscience would ever look without asking," Sarna assures him, carefully prying his fingers from her aide's collar. The aide slinks away, pale and sweaty.
"What about those guys?" John demands, stabbing his finger up at the tower, and even Sarna jumps. John doesn't care, his head is buzzing and he's angry and he wants to do something, because up there maybe Rodney and his team are getting murdered, and he doesn't think he can handle that.
Sarna makes a show of smoothing her hair, and looks up at the top of the tower, the dark blemish of the explosion on the side where the control room must be open to the elements. "Eron Vaal is a terrorist, Major," she tells him. "But as far as I know, none of his men have the capability. They would certainly never have been given new reading devices."
"Reading devices?" John asks blankly.
"These," she says, brushing the hair from the side of her neck to reveal something small and metallic blinking just behind her ear. "They allow our citizens to access the city's computer systems, and exchange information via the network. It is not true telepathy, but we can establish the presence of a certain number of signals above, and connecting through their readers, we can establish the presence of nearly a dozen others."
She lets the hair fall back into place, hiding the reader, and explains: "Vaal's men have all been detained in the past for criminal offences. Their devices were removed. It is a punishment reserved for only our most dangerous criminals."
She looks grave, enough that it gives John a bit of a chill. He can practically hear the words "we do not negotiate with terrorists" coming out of her mouth, even though she hasn't said them yet. Vaal's not just a terrorist, he can tell. In their eyes, he's a monster, and nobody negotiates with monsters. You kill them, whatever the cost.
"Then how do you know anybody's still alive up there?"
"Because all of our scientists have readers," Sarna tells him. "My aide detected all except Technician Orsa Brenn, and passive readings tell us that there are still several others present who cannot be Vaal or his men."
John grasps at the offered straw. "Can we use it to communicate with my people?"
But Sarna shakes her head. "I'm afraid not," she says. "As I said, this is a passive method. We cannot force them to respond. But we will keep trying, while we execute contingency plans."
Contingency plans, thinks John. It's hardly ever a stable situation when people start throwing around words like "contingency," and he recognises the dismissive way the Avans are talking about Vaal. The man is "dangerous," he's "a threat," he "cannot not be reasoned with." None of the above bodes well for getting their own people out safely, even if Sarna isn't saying so yet. Better to be paranoid, John thinks.
Though he's loathe to go out of sight of the tower, he leaves Teyla and Hergaard with Sarna, and he and Ronon tramp back to the gate to dial Atlantis.
"We have a situation," he tells Chuck Beaton, putting enough urgency in his voice that the Canadian tech goes running for Carter.
Carter, to her credit, sounds cool as the ocean, but then she's probably been in this situation a dozen times before. With a few notable (positively fluke-like) exceptions, SG-1 was not well-known for making a lot of friends. Elizabeth's Avoiding Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding handbook, written hastily in the first year of the expedition, was been largely based on SG-1's mission reports. It's more a how-not-to guide than a how-to.
She's a little less cool when he finishes outlining it. "I hate to ask this, but we're sure McKay had nothing to do with the political uprising?"
Strangely, it calms him a little, focuses him, and John chuckles despite himself. "No, it looks like Rodney was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And still is," he adds, because they've gotten off the point. Rodney has gotten a lot better at keeping his mouth shut, but he's still Rodney.
"I don't suppose there's any chance the Daedelus is in spitting distance of Ava?" he asks, idly running inventory on his and Ronon's personal ordinance as he talks.
Carter's end of the line goes quiet for a minute, and he guesses she's stepped away from the control room. "At the last check-in, they were still three days out at full burn, Colonel, and we've got nothing else in dock with beaming technology, which I assume was your next question. Do you think we're there yet?"
"Don't know for sure," he admits, glad that he doesn't have to explain his tentative plan. The tower isn't shielded, as far as he can work out, just at the mercy of a complicated lockdown sequence. "But I'm getting a scorched earth vibe off of the government officials here, and I'd rather be safe than sorry."
He practically hears her "what, you?" grin, and hears it fade, too. "That's not encouraging," she says. "And I guess this counts them out as regular trading partners. I don't like the idea of allying ourselves with people who are willing to take this kind of loss just to deal with insurgents. Especially if the loss is our people."
She says that with such feeling — our people — that he feels a momentary surge of something both fond and indignant. She's new, but she's trying, and this isn't the time to needle her over territory.
"Well, like I said, it's just a vibe, not a fact," he hurries to say. "They might still be useful if we can work this out. I just think we should be careful."
"I trust your vibes, Colonel," she says, but adds: "so we'll see. In the meantime..."
It's a leading question, and he takes it. "I'd like Lorne to come through with a couple of engineers." He looks at Ronon, who gives him a thoughtful shrug. "The Minister says there's no way to bypass the lockdown, but from what I've seen these people take a lot of technology for granted without knowing how it works."
"Ancient?" she asks, unable to disguise her eagerness.
"Rodney thought so," he agrees. "Or a mix of old and new. Maybe our people can find a way through that lockdown, and if it comes down to rushing the power station, I'd rather not be blasting through barred doors."
"Understandable," she says, and there's the sound of her talking over the citywide, calling for Lorne to form up with a team in the jumper bay. "ETA about ten minutes, Colonel," she tells him.
He breathes the tiniest sigh of relief, and thanks her.
"You're welcome. And good luck."
Lorne arrives bang at the ten-minute mark, and they ride back to the city in the jumper. John lets Lorne fly, sitting in the co-pilot seat and trying not to fidget.
Not for the first time, he wonders how it's always Rodney who gets himself into these situations. It can't just be bad luck, because they're all equally prone to that. It can't just be Pegasus, because Pegasus and her twisted sense of humour do not play favourites.
That really only leaves Rodney, and though John would never actually say that it's his fault (though it fairly often sort of is), it does seem to be tied up with Rodney, himself. Rodney, who is, above all, unique. Rodney, with that bizarre quality about him that makes most people hate him and some people like him even against their better judgement. John certainly saw it that way himself, at first, but it remains a fact that the people who care about Rodney, care deeply for him, to the point that he can become a liability sometimes, and John's certainly no exception to that rule.
He's a liability anyway, John reminds himself, and savours the self-recrimination over the stupidity of that for a few seconds before it dies away of its own accord. He's been a liability for a long time, and sometimes John has no idea how he can have avoided noticing. But it seems, as do many things, to go right over Rodney's brilliant head. For a genius, the guy can be pretty oblivious.
John leans back in his seat and tries to unobtrusively massage his temples. When that doesn't work, he presses the heel of his right hand into his right eye. One thing's for certain: he gets a lot more headaches these days than he did before he met Rodney McKay.
For two nights, Rodney actually slept mostly through the dark hours. John would have liked to think that had something to do with his presence, but suspected it had rather more to do with the pure exhaustion of not sleeping much for almost a month.
They didn't discuss the nightmares, though John tried once or twice. All Rodney would say was: "It's my problem, I'm dealing with it."
It was a couple of days before it became clear that Rodney wasn't dealing with anything at all. If anything he was tighter-strung than usual, which was something, and a couple of times John thought he saw him go almost stone-still.
That was unusual, too. Rodney was always in motion, talking or moving his hands or tapping his heel while he thought or ate; even when he was focused and holding still he always seemed to be moving, somehow. Jeannie wasn't like that, she always seemed easy in herself, but even she seemed bothered by Rodney's stillness; kept giving him odd looks whenever she thought he wouldn't see, and then softening her own gestures around him.
It was as if, when not being spoken to, Rodney was going into some kind of sleep mode. He'd stare into space and hold very still, but not like he'd just come to a rest, more like he was frozen.
It was downright eerie, and the second time he was startled out of it John saw real alarm on his face before he covered it. It was Madison, that time, who shook him back into reality, tugging on his arm and saying: "Uncle Mer, can you take me to the park? Mummy says she's busy."
Rodney blinked and looked down at her as if surprised to see her, shook his head, and said, uncertainly: "I... I guess so..."
"Do you mind, Mer?" asked Jeannie, halfway into both the living room and her coat. "One of the other lecturers got sick at the last minute and I said I'd fill in. I wouldn't ask, but..."
Rodney blinked right back into the moment, and stared at her. "Wait, lecture? What? What's this about?"
Jeannie gave him an elaborate eye-roll. "I've been teaching first-year physics classes at Douglas College, Mer. I had to keep my hand in somewhere."
"Physics — at Douglas of all — why didn't you tell me about this?" he demanded, still looking confused.
"Lower-division colleges serve an important purpose, and I did tell you, Mer. Honestly, do you ever read my letters?" She moved past him into the foyer. Rodney followed, apparently unable to stop himself.
"I thought you'd given up all the 'demanding subjective drain' of academia to glory in the squishy warmth of motherhood or something?" Rodney said nastily, either unaware or uninterested that the product of said squishy warmth was standing not ten feet away. Madison didn't seem to notice the implication.
John, safe behind his book, hid his enormous grin behind the pages. But he heard Jeannie sigh impatiently. "Mad's starting school in September," she pointed out. "Whereupon she'll be out for most of the day and I can..." She paused, and when she continued there was an almost gentle note under the exasperation: "It was never going to be forever, Mer."
Rodney sounded confused: "It... wasn't?"
John actually had to bite the inside of his cheek again to keep from chuckling. Madison was standing in the middle of the living room with her hands on her hips, staring at her mother and her uncle with a vaguely perplexed look on her face, but she was definitely paying attention.
"No, it wasn't. Which I tried to tell you at the time, but you weren't really listening, were you? I don't even— look," she said, glancing at her watch, "I don't have time for this right now. Can you take her or not? I was going to take her downtown to the Space Centre, and then to Deer Lake afterwards... I can't think of anyone more qualified to debunk the student presenters at the Planetarium, but if you don't want to, I need to know now so I can take her over to Frank and Theresa's..."
"Frank and who?"
"Kaleb's parents. Her grandparents? I'll have just enough time to drop her off before I have to be at the college. Well?"
John wasn't reading anymore, was watching Rodney's profile as he shut his mouth, frowned mightily for a second, and finally nodded. "I can—I can take her," he said, sounding like he couldn't believe his own ears.
"Great!" exclaimed Jeannie, "the car keys are on the kitchen table," and flew out of the house before Rodney could say another word.
Rodney stared after his sister for several long beats before Madison asked: "Are we going now, Uncle Mer?" Rodney looked down at her again with a frown creasing between his eyebrows. He looked so adrift that John got to his feet, folding back the page of his book, and crossed the living room in a few paces.
"How 'bout we all go, hey Mad?"
Madison hugged his legs and ran to get her shoes, Rodney staring wide-eyed after her. Tentative, John reached out to touch his shoulder, and Rodney jerked away. "What?" he asked, blinking. "What?"
"You sure you don't want to stay here?"
Rodney's sudden glare was a strange relief. "I'm fine," he snapped, and then: "Douglas College," the words positively dripping with scorn. "Of all the places she could have edged her way back into academia..."
John raised an eyebrow. "Not a high-class institution?"
"Oh, please," Rodney huffed. "It's everything wrong with public post-secondary education. They don't call it 'Dougie Daycare' for nothing."
He went on muttering similar imprecations about the declining state of education and the questionable wisdom of pandering to the lowest common denominator as he found his shoes and put them on. John watched him for a minute, listening to Madison run back and forth upstairs, before finally going to find his own shoes, asking with carefully casual tones:
"Are you sure, Rodney? I mean, I can take her, if you don't want to go."
It was an easy out, and Rodney knew it — he fixed John with a piercing stare as he double-knotted his laces. Finally, he shook his head. "No," he muttered, "you'd never find it on your own, and I know you, you'll get distracted by the lasers and the pretty lights and forget that it's supposed to be an educational experience."
John smirked. He couldn't help it. "Isn't it a four-story sphere with a giant telescope on top?"
"Yes, well first, there are two of those in Vancouver, and second, you're not approaching it from space, you'll have to navigate on the ground like a mere mortal," Rodney pointed out, and John frowned.
He'd actually forgotten that for a second. Roads. Funny how perspective could change.
It had nothing on the real thing, but the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (and John had never heard such an uninspiring name) was a great way to spend an afternoon. For one thing it was air-conditioned, which was something met with appreciation after the last few days of temperatures in the humid hundreds ("It's thirty-five degrees, John," Rodney had sniped when he'd asked for a conversion. "Celsius is more efficient. Play along like you live in the twenty-first century with the rest of us."). For another, there was a talking robot. Nobody had told him about the talking robot.
Rodney looked around smugly as they stood in line for tickets. "I'd bet that ninety percent of the astronomers here have no idea that their stunning new telescopes were designed with alien technology," he whispered, and John just shrugged. Rodney had explained that the Space Centre had only had one telescope before the Stargate program, but had installed quite a few new ones in the last decade, the newest two enhanced with hybridized Asgard technology.
John just shrugged and said nothing, but privately thought somebody on their staff knew; somebody had to be there to edit the real alien ships out of the radio telemetry.
The show was obviously geared towards kids, but John leaned back in the reclining chair with Madison on his left and Rodney on his right (Madison had wanted to sit with "Uncle John") and enjoyed it anyway, the feeling of total immersion in the projected night sky above them. The dome-shaped screen covered the ceiling and most of the walls, so it seemed as though the seats were floating in the black.
Madison made little "oohs" and "aahs" of delight as the Zeiss projector panned, shifted, and sped them through space. Rodney alternately stared with a hidden smile and muttered whenever something particularly inaccurate or over-simplified was explained by the robot (though as far as John could tell, the robot got it right more often than its human "partner" did).
Finally Madison's seat placement made sense, because halfway through, as the audience was being taken on a tour around the event horizon of a black hole, Madison leaned over John with an annoyed look on her face.
"Do you mind?" she asked, her high piping voice doing an utterly uncanny likeness of Rodney's you-are-such-a-moron tone, "some of us are trying to watch."
Rodney looked silently betrayed as Madison settled back into her seat, and John had to stuff two knuckles into his mouth to keep from laughing aloud and ruining the show for everyone. It was the same face Rodney made when John told him not to blow up any more planets.
Madison pleaded for a ride on the simulator afterwards but was flatly refused — it was closed, lied Rodney. Secretly John knew that Rodney just didn't want to ride on anything without inertial dampeners.
In the gift shop, Rodney bought Madison a two-layered globe showing the constellations, one that could rotate the night sky to show the change of the stars over a year.
John bought her a stuffed astronaut and a model kit of the International Space Station (not entirely accurate, but he doubted that the division of the Canadian Space Agency responsible for designing toys knew about Asgard beaming technology or zero-grav weapons platforms). Rodney paid with a credit card, but John got a dirty look from the cashier when he paid with an American hundred-dollar bill. He got back a handful of colourful Canadian bills that Rodney immediately snatched from his hand when John smirked and said they looked more like play money.
Madison insisted on throwing change into the fountain beneath the main entrance, and John stood with Rodney while she made eighteen wishes (all the coins Rodney had in his pocket, actually stolen from the change jar in Jeannie's front hall).
Then she counted the number of telescopes at the Space Centre (eight) and the number of years until the time capsule buried in front of the fountain would be opened (too many to be interesting).
She declared the huge Haida crab sculpture in the fountain to be "weird-looking." John didn't feel up to explaining modern art to a five-year-old, but just to be contrary, Rodney pulled out John's pilfered twenty-dollar bill and pointed out the other Bill Reid art on the flipside from Queen Elizabeth. "Don't mind him," Rodney told his niece with a condescending grin for John, "he's just jealous because our money's prettier."
John did not remind Rodney of how had been complaining since they got back that hard currency was inefficient, unhygienic, and generally a pain in the ass. Instead he grinned back, because he knew a lot more about art than Rodney did but Rodney was going out of his way to be irritating, and John had long since realised that this was Rodney's way of showing affection. Whether he knew it or not.
Deer Lake Park was much bigger than it had looked on the road map, grass and gardens and trees angling down from a cluster of theatres and studios near the main road. It was walking distance from the house, but they were already in the car and so they parked it in the lot beside the Shadbolt Centre, bought sandwiches from its tiny cafeteria, and walked down the grassy slope towards the water.
"Mummy said you played here when you were little, but you stopped 'cause somebody pricked your Eggo," said Madison as they passed an enormous outdoor amphitheatre on the northern shore.
"I think you mean 'ego,' Mad," John corrected her without thinking, as Rodney stopped abruptly, looking down towards the stage and its majestic sloping roof with something like embarrassment.
Madison seemed to sense she'd said something wrong, because she tilted her head at Rodney and asked: "Did I hurt your feelings, Uncle Mer?"
Rodney rubbed a finger down the bridge of his nose once, twice, and then shook his head. "No," he said evenly, "You didn't hurt my feelings."
"Oh," said Madison, brightening. "Good."
John let her get a little ahead, and leaned close to Rodney and asked: "You played here?" He didn't mean to sound amazed, but it was amazing. He couldn't help it. "Play what?"
Rodney blushed a deep shade of pink. "Um, yeah. I used to play piano when I was a kid. I wasn't very good."
John grinned, because not only did that fit just right with his mental vision of Rodney as a kid, the blush was kind of... cute.
"You must have been pretty good, if you were playing in giant public amphitheatres," John pointed out, still grinning, though he wasn't sure exactly why.
Rodney shrugged, grimaced — his unhappy grimace, the one he wore when he accidentally let on that he had feelings. "It was my mother's thing, really; she studied music, and it was this big deal that I was actually doing something she liked. She used to drag me all over the province playing in youth competitions. When it turned out I wasn't good enough to play professionally, I dropped it."
There was a note of carefully-hidden resentment in Rodney's voice, in the slump of his shoulders, as they moved to catch up with Madison. "Your parents just let you... stop? Did you not like doing it?"
"No, it wasn't..." Rodney trailed off, looking up at the cloudy bright sky as they walked. It wasn't that, John saw in his face. He didn't look at John as he went on: "My parents weren't really all that fond of me. Mum was disappointed, but more that I wasn't good enough than that I gave it up, so she didn't push it or anything. I think they were both relieved when they didn't have to drive me around anymore."
He shrugged again, and John had a moment of dark, intense dislike for Rodney's parents for no specific reason at all, though he had a good idea. John would never care to arm-wrestle anyone to prove superiority in parenting skills, but he did know from personal experience that if one of your kids could utter the phrase "they weren't all that fond of me" and mean it, you were doing something wrong.
"How come you never mentioned it before? That you play piano, I mean."
"Because I don't, anymore," Rodney answered, with a little more snap in his voice. "I don't... I don't talk about it, really. Or think about it. There isn't any point. It was a waste of time I could have spent pursuing more practical things."
"Right," said John, trying to put just the right mix of scepticism and if-you-want-to-talk-about-it into the word, but Rodney didn't bite. John began idly plotting all the ways he could hijack enough cargo allotment on the Daedelus to ship a piano across several galaxies. He suspected it would be tricky.
The playground was on the eastern shore of the lake, out of sight of the parking lot which was lost behind a screen of trees. Being the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, it was practically deserted. John stretched out on the warm grass while Rodney sat watching Madison clamber up the brightly-coloured equipment, his elbows resting on his knees.
John ate his sandwich, and glared at Rodney until he stopped picking at his and ate it. They didn't talk much, and Rodney seemed to relax a little with no one pushing at him, leaned back on his elbows next to John and stared up at the sky, where there were clouds gathering grey-white above the trees.
John had started to doze off in the warm breeze and the sunshine when suddenly it happened — there was a squeal of abused metal, and then a thud, and then a high-pitched wail from the playground.
Rodney shot to his feet in a second, and was rushing towards the edge of the play area. John was close on his heels as Madison continued to cry, rocking theatrically back and forth, clutching her scraped and bleeding knee. Rodney stopped a few feet away, hands still outstretched, and John outpaced him, kneeling down to give Madison a quick once-over.
"No big deal," he said soothingly, "just a scrape. Can you stand up?"
Sniffling and whimpering, Madison let him pull her up, and then hopped on one foot back to the grass. John looked up to ask Rodney to grab the first aid kit, but saw it the same second as Madison, who took one look at Rodney and stopped, tear-streaked face puzzled and scared.
Rodney, who was standing ghost-pale and ramrod-straight, his eyes huge and dilated, unmoving like he was glued to the spot.
And John stopped, too, because he knew that look, he'd seen it on the faces of dozens of soldiers, seen it in the mirror, and because Keller had told him to watch for it; part of trauma was remembering what you'd rather not, and Rodney had probably been fighting it for weeks. He watched as Rodney took them in, stumbled a few steps back and sat heavily on the grass, covering his eyes with his fists, pulled in on himself and shaking.
John had an agonizing three seconds of indecision, between Rodney and the weeping child, and decided to compromise. He put Madison on a nearby park bench, dropped a kiss in her hair and promised her ice cream if she could wait "just one second." Then he went back to where Rodney was sitting, fingers interlaced behind his neck, staring blank and wide-eyed over the lake.
He crouched down on the grass, and reached out for Rodney but didn't touch him. Even inches away from the skin he could feel the Rodney's tremors in his own palms, as if it was being communicated by the vibrations of the air. "Rodney," he said, low and quiet like the night on the stairs, "Rodney, look at me."
Peripherally, he heard Madison's whimpers die away, saw her watching them with still-teary fascination, not sure what was wrong, but aware that something was. John felt a rush of gratitude. Most children were too self-centred to care about other people being in need, but most children were not Rodney McKay's flesh and blood, and Rodney was selfish but not self-centred. She was sitting still, biting her lip, as if trying not to distract him.
The kid was clearly a genius.
Rodney's eyes were unfocused, but the pupils were back to normal, shrunk against the white glare of the afternoon sky. He was still pale, though, and clammy when John finally dared to reach out and touch him, framing Rodney's face in his hands. Rodney's eyes fell closed almost of their own accord, and he shivered, as if he couldn't decide between leaning into the touch and recoiling.
"Tell me," John said.
Rodney swallowed before answering, almost too quiet to hear: "They—Simpson." Another swallow, convulsive, and then: "A lot of blood. And that... that noise."
The shiver, this time, was mutual, because John remembered the sound as well as Rodney did: the keening, horrible thrum of Ava that had seemed determined to take him apart, piece by piece.
He could feel Rodney's pulse gradually slowing under his fingertips. "I'm gonna..." he said, and Rodney opened his eyes just enough to nod, once, before John leaned forward to rest his forehead against Rodney's.
He wondered if this were more for Rodney's benefit or his own; knew that people had to be staring, the pair of young women and their toddlers on the far side of the playground, but he just didn't fucking care. All that mattered was that within a few breaths, Rodney's whole body stopped being a sharp, trembling line, and bowed forward into John's hands like they were all that was holding him up.
After a while, he lifted his head and searched Rodney's face. Madison was still huddled on the end of the park bench, chin in her hands, watching them anxiously. "Will you be okay for a minute?" he asked, nodding in Madison's direction.
Rodney looked, went a little red. "Yeah," he muttered. "Go."
Jeannie was at least as paranoid as Rodney when it came to Madison, so John sat her down on the park bench at the edge of the playground and dug in the bag of "Madison supplies" for a band-aid. He misted antiseptic spray over the scraped knee and then blew on it, gently, mimicking the only tender thing he ever remembered his mother doing for him after he turned eleven. Madison's wobbly lip gradually disappeared, and she stared in fascination at the still-oozing scrape as John neatly covered it with a band-aid.
When he was done, she inspected it solemnly and nodded her approval, then glanced over at where Rodney was sitting with his eyes closed. "Is Uncle Mer okay?" she asked, only a little tremulously, and John ruffled her hair. He wasn't all that much better at showing affection than Rodney was, but kids were easy.
"He'll be okay, kiddo."
Madison, with the casual unconcern of a five-year-old once the moment has passed, went back to the swings, though John saw her shooting suspicious looks over her shoulder every now and then. John returned to where Rodney was sprawled in the grass.
The day had gone still by now, the clouds blotting out the blue of the sky and hanging low over their heads. "It's going to rain," Rodney said after they'd sat in silence for a while, close enough that their shoulders touched. He got up, walked a few steps away, hands in his pockets.
"You've got to talk about it, Rodney," John said, watching Rodney's back. And there it was — his shoulders coming up, the back muscles drawing together. "You've got to," John persisted, quietly, but with a growing feeling of desperation. "There's a process. If you don't let it happen, make it happen, you just stay... where you are now," he finished, feeling like he was reaching even though his hands were plucking at the grass.
The sun came out, disappeared, and brightened again, the park shifting rapidly between afternoon, evening, and full day in the space of a few minutes. Somehow he knew Rodney's eyes were closed, even though he couldn't see his face.
"I can't even think about it," came Rodney's voice, somehow high and hoarse at the same time. "I can't even think about it without wanting to... don't you understand that?" His voice went softer and softer until John could barely hear him.
"Yeah," John answered sharply, swallowing hard against the bloom of anxiety in his own throat, "I do."
Rodney expelled a loud gust of air, almost close to his usual frustrated sigh, but not quite. John sat there, not sure whether to move or wait him out. Rodney stayed where he was, shoulders hunched, still looking at the sky, until the threatened storm began to prickle at the back of John's neck.
"I don't know if I can go back."
He said it so quietly, and the day was so still, that the words took a moment to penetrate. A heartbeat later John was on his feet, grabbing Rodney by the shoulders and spinning him around, not caring if it might jolt him like the last hundred times.
"What?" he demanded. "Are you crazy?" Because it really was insane, even to suggest it, and it set something twisting in John's chest even to hear him say it.
Rodney let out a sharp, choked laugh, didn't meet his eyes, rubbed the back of his neck and looked miserable. "I don't think I should," he clarified, weakly, and John stared at him, because "can't" and "shouldn't" were different things and not both as final.
"Rodney," he tried, but his voice came out faint, and instead he just pulled Rodney to him, ignoring how Rodney went stiff and uncertain for a moment before relaxing into it, his hands coming up to close around John's arms. They stayed like that until the sun passed behind another cloud.
Suddenly there was a crack like the sky breaking, and Rodney jerked in John's arms as it was followed by a flash of lightning. Then the world seeped swiftly to grey and it was raining; Rodney looked up, blinking against the water streaming down his face...
...and started laughing.
Madison shrieked with indignation in the sudden downpour and ran back to them. "Oh my god the sky is falling!" she pronounced, grinning, and John grinned back.
Madison took hold of Rodney's hand as John gathered up their things, and then they were running up the hill toward the car. By the time they reached it, they were all soaked to the skin, hair and clothing both, Madison with the collar of her t-shirt pulled futilely over her head. They climbed into the car shivering and exhilarated.
Despite the rain (which in John's experience ruled out frozen desserts), they stopped for ice cream at a Baskin Robbins near the house. John got a scoop of something blue and purple with the improbable name of "Hawaiian Sunrise," ("I guarantee you, Madison, somewhere in the universe there is a planet with a purple sunrise. As a matter of fact..." "Rodney! Security clearance!"), and Rodney got an ice cream two scoops bigger than Madison's child-sized portion.
"She's a native, we're used to rain," Rodney argued; John nodded, smiling, remembering that just about the only thing Rodney had (almost) never complained about, off-world, was rain.
"And anyway," Rodney finished, contentedly licking melted ice cream from his fingers with positively obscene enthusiasm, "you should never go back on a bribe with a five-year-old."
Ava City is built on the foundations of something much older. It isn't a flying city, like Atlantis, but it's clearly Ancient, deeply intertwined with the Avans' systems.
The buzzing that permeates the air wasn't there until the lights went out, John remembers, and he stands beneath the tower of the power station for several minutes with his eyes closed, reaching out and trying to qualify the sensation with something familiar. Sometimes having the gene is less than convenient. From the moment of the explosion Ava City has been a constant dull throb at the back of his head, like a spoiled child wanting attention.
All he gets is wrongness, and that's familiar enough, the feeling of something off-kilter, mis-calibrated. The kind of thing that back home, sets off alarms and brings Rodney's technicians flying from their beds at all hours. But Ava's not a fully-functioning Ancient city; it doesn't have the efficient (and sometimes extremely touchy) backups, diagnostics, and fail-safes that Atlantis has.
Ava City is a hodgepodge of Ancient and the patch-job efforts of generations of Avans. All Sarna will tell him is that Ava hasn't been culled in over two hundred years, and John starts to think she doesn't really know why. Just that something left by the "Ancestors" has always protected them. John's sure it's a machine of some kind. They've seen dozens of them in the Pegasus Galaxy; playpens left behind by the Ancients to protect their experiments, their human wildlife refuges. Pity none of them ever came with instruction manuals.
It all leads him to one conclusion: the rebels did something to whatever it was that protects Ava, and now it's not working right. He doesn't know if it was on purpose or incidental - the latter, he guesses, given how much these people seem to know about their own defences. He experiences a flash of what Rodney must feel all the time, the frank bafflement that all these idiots aren't already dead.
Grimly, he leaves Ronon to keep an eye on the assembly of bureaucrats at the Parliaments (Ronon's remarkably good at understanding bureaucratic jaw-flapping when he wants to be), and goes looking on his own, with Teyla at his side.
Sarna didn't say so, but John's already worked out on his own that there aren't many people with the ATA gene on Ava. The big tip-off was the control chair preserved in museum-piece splendour in the entrance hall of the Parliament building, dusty and untouched for centuries. The Parliament itself is rebuilt around an older structure, and the chair is probably dead, but he can follow the connections, knows enough about the schizophrenic wiring schematics of the Ancients to have a fair idea where weapons and defence systems would be in relation.
Teyla doesn't say much as they walk, John mostly navigating by feel while the Avans ignore them with a new determination. It's not until John pauses at the head of a wide main street, casting about for direction, that she presses her lips together and lays a gentle hand on his arm. "He will be all right," she says, softly.
He barely looks at her, a quick glance at her face to see the suddenly-frustrating calm he knew he would see, the concern for him, and shakes his head as he continues to cast for direction. He's feeling more keyed up the further they go from the city centre, more frustrated, more tired. It's been almost six hours and he's exhausted, he can't imagine how the hostages are doing. If he's honest with himself, he's trying not to imagine anything.
He starts off in a new direction, and Teyla follows him, projecting patient expectation. He says: "Sometimes I wonder if we really are cursed."
Teyla considers this. "We do seem to be experiencing a run of bad luck."
She's quiet for another few minutes, and he can just sense the studying look Teyla uses to gather in things about him he usually doesn't notice until she mentions them, as they take a sharp turn. Suddenly they're passing between buildings that lean crazily together like drunks rubbing elbows. "John," she says, and he's only half-listening, the pull growing stronger, along with the feeling of wrongness. "Rodney will be all right."
"He'd better be," John answers, and then stops, because they've found it. The alley has narrowed and flattened down to the stones of the old city, geometric shapes showing between the worn cobbles. And... there, one of them has been prised loose, just resting in its groove, and John can see a sliver of darkness, like a trap door.
A moment's investigation with a flashlight suggests a network of tunnels, and even as Teyla is tapping her radio to tell Ronon that they know how the rebels got into the tower, that the rebels must have cut through some crucial conduit to reach it, John is swaying with nausea. He knows Teyla can't hear it, can't hear the dissonance of the malfunction, but from the dark space beneath the street, the heart of Ava City is screaming like a hive of angry bees.
John is biting his tongue from the second they leave the Parliament building, making an effort to keep from meeting anyone's eyes. He's afraid that if he does, he'll start shouting about how completely moronic the Ministers' plan actually is.
Cadman and Whitehall are quiet, too, and he can just sense them giving him expectant, uneasy looks. He's trying to figure out what to say, how to express his growing dislike of these soft-limbed, soft-mouthed bureaucrats who are at once more insincere and less efficient than the kind he's used to. At least the idiots in the military are idiotic in a set pattern, with obvious goals. The Avans almost seem to be behaving obliviously for the sake of it.
Sitting silent at the back of the Parliament, in the seats reserved for guests, he had his hands tight on his knees to keep them from shaking, because these people are so completely arrogant about their cluelessness he thought it was a wonder the city had stood for as long as it had.
If he's honest with himself, they started getting under his skin from the second the window was blown out of the tower, the way Sarna dismissed Vaal like he was nothing. Like people who weren't a part of the system couldn't threaten it. That Ava at its greatest was simply too perfect to be beaten. John wanted to shout at her that that was crazy, that you didn't dismiss hostage-takers, that nobody who moved to lead armed men to capture civilians was soft or unresolved or easily dismissed.
He didn't, though, and he doesn't. He's still a representative of Atlantis, and you don't say things like that in earshot of alien officials.
And there she comes, too, now flanked by half a dozen aides, all busily muttering and scribbling on the odd clunky input devices that are reminiscent of semi-Victorian data tablets.
"Colonel," she says, smoothing back her hair and nodding curtly to dismiss all the aides but two; they go scurrying away to parts unknown as she focuses on John. So John has to face her, put the high sharp silhouette of the tower to his back like he's been avoiding doing for hours.
"I wanted to tell you, we have dispatched security forces to arrest Eron Vaal's accomplices. We should have acquired them within the hour."
Acquired, thinks John, bitterly. Accomplices. A tidy way to describe a middle-aged female artisan and two teenaged boys. John has to clench his right hand around his P90, because barbarians take hostages to bargain with hostage-takers, but that's impolitic, too; the Parliament was sure Vaal's wife and sons had been helping or at least sheltering him, and on Ava, that's enough.
At least it's enough when you storm and capture a civilian power station and a dozen hostages. But fight fire with fire is still messy, and knee-jerk, and the province of tyrants and amateurs and those without finesse.
"Yeah," he says, instead of all the things he wants to say. He closes his eyes and tries to think of what Elizabeth would say. He never could get that "understanding" voice down. He just doesn't have the patience. "Minister, I need to say, again, that I think this is a bad idea. I feel strongly that this is just going to exacerbate the situation."
And Sarna, damn her, smiles at him. "I understand your feelings, Colonel. But we did try your way first."
John almost laughs. His way. Thirty minutes "graciously" given to his two techs to interface and argue with the power station's lockdown protocols, all for nothing. John thinks they could maybe have done it with more time, but the techs say no. "In any case, we have been dealing with these terrorists for some time now. We know how to deal with them."
John's hand clenches harder of its own accord. We know how to deal with them, in a calm, motherly voice like it's nothing, and for a split second John was almost screaming in her face, about how maybe killing this guy is worth six lives to her but it isn't, to him. To them. He comes dangerously close to comparing them, city against city, but he doesn't, even though a growing part of him is screaming that it's true. He doesn't sacrifice people. Atlantis doesn't sacrifice people. They just... don't.
He suddenly realises — because Cadman is discreetly elbowing him in the side — that Sarna's done with him, that she's turning away with a promise to keep him posted, and those are the words she uses. Like it's nothing. Like it's still a trade deal. Like this is just a hiccup.
He waits until she's out of sight, out of earshot, before he dares to unclench his hands, relax his jaw. To his right, Whitehall looks a little pale, just as angry as John feels, and Cadman's glaring coldly at the Minister's retreating back.
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
He glances at her, just a glance and a nod. "Yeah."
"These assholes are going to get our people killed, sir," she says, face hardly moving.
John lets out the breath he's been holding. "Yeah," he says, and then edges past them, back up the main street. "Come on. Let's see how Plan B is doing."
They've left their two techs under Lorne's watchful eye, and they've set up shop at the end of the blind alley where John found the loose stone. They tried to tell the Avans about it, but five minutes into the Parliament session John changed his mind.
They already knew by then that they can't follow the same route Vaal and his men took; it's blocked with unquestionably Ancient bulkheads that won't open, even to the significant amount of persuasion John can exercise. This city doesn't know him, and anyway, he's coming to realise, it's forgotten a lot of what it was. When he reaches for it, it's nothing like the easy welcome slide into concert with Atlantis. This city feels old, and tired, and irritable, and doesn't trust him.
He still set the techs on trying to trick it open, though, and he crouches by the hatch and peers down into the dark. "Any luck?"
Dark little Navneet Bryce looks up, shading her eyes against the daylight. "We're giving it one more try," she says, glancing down at the tablet braced against her hip. "Paul's just finishing up with the re-wiring."
She says this last into the dark, and John can make out Doctor Donaldson's tall, gangly shape against the paler metal of the bulkhead door, backlit by the pale blue glow of the crystal tray. "Just about ready to go," comes his voice, echoing strangely through the underground chamber.
Bryce points at a scorch-mark on the wall nearer the hatch than the tunnel mouth, and says: "We think this is tied in with the city's defence system. Whatever they did to force open the door the first time — we think some kind of cutting tool—"
"Something much less advanced than what they were cutting," Donaldson interrupts irritably, not looking up.
"Yes," agrees Bryce. "It was incidental damage, I expect, but they put a pretty deep score in the control console, and it's probably the reason for the noise you say you're hearing. It completely threw off the frequency of the pulse."
"It's not a pulse," Donaldson mutters.
"It's a pulse," Bryce says firmly. "An extremely high-frequency pulse. Designed specifically to interfere with biological tech."
John's silent for a moment, contemplating the damaged console from above. "You mean Wraith tech."
John tries not to look offended at the surprised look a lot of the scientists give him when he understands something right away, because he knows they don't really mean anything by it. Well, Rodney does. But Rodney's not here and right now John's too distracted to pay it more than a second's mind.
"Yes. And that explains why it's manifesting as an unpleasant sound, at least to someone with the gene. Properly calibrated it should be unnoticeable."
"Except for the way it probably makes Wraith ships fall out of the sky," notes Donaldson from the dark.
"So is it damaged, or disabled?" Cadman asks with some — valid — concern, and a wary glance at the pale green sky.
Bryce glances down at her tablet. "I don't know," she admits. "I'd guess it's still effective, but I can't be certain. I honestly can't tell how far out of tune it is in relation to where it's supposed to be, without doing a more thorough diagnostic, and..."
"And we don't have time for that right now," John finishes, because "thorough" means "slow."
"We'll just have to hope there aren't any hungry hives in the area." Because the last thing — just about the last thing, anyway — they need is a culling coming down on their heads with a dozen hostages already at risk.
John stands up and stretches, because frankly he can't think of anything else to do while Bryce and Donaldson are down there messing around with probably-broken Ancient tech. Lorne, who's leaning against the smooth alley wall with his weapon hanging easily in his hands, cocks his head at him.
"You doing okay, sir?"
John gives him a studying, slightly suspicious look, and shrugs. "Yeah," he lies, experimentally, and knows full well the lie's a bad one when he sees Lorne do that little mouth-tilt thing he uses when he wants to call someone a liar but he thinks it might get him in trouble. It both amuses and irritates John because he's pretty sure Lorne learned that move from him.
"So I guess that sound isn't bothering you, then," asks Lorne, eyes over John's shoulder on Cadman, who's still crouching by the hatch, chatting with Bryce.
John looks up, right into Lorne's face, notices for the first time that Lorne's usual cheerful calm has the widening crack of a headache in it. "It's getting worse," Lorne says, conversationally. "Though I guess it's worse for you. And it's worse here than it is out on the street."
John is almost — almost — relieved, almost says something funny about misery loving company. The buzzing hasn't faded, has gotten worse, but it's growing usual, turning into background noise. At least until suddenly it pitches up with a sharp whine, and from below the street he feels it as the interface shorts; he can't stop himself from clapping hands over his ears, sees Lorne do the same, and he steps up the edge of the hatch to see a tendril of blue smoke rising up into the air.
Below, as the whine dies away and the buzzing goes back to what it was a moment ago, he sees Bryce waving away smoke and hears Donaldson swearing. A moment later, Bryce is looking up at him apologetically. "Sorry, Colonel Sheppard," she says, looking like she means it, like she's failed somehow. "No good. If Doctor McKay were here he might be able to... but..." she shrugs, and Cadman reaches down to pull her up to the street as Donaldson starts to gather their equipment.
John steps back, because it might be his imagination but the buzzing is worse near the dark square of the hole, and has to shut his eyes for a minute to work through his frustration, turned toward the blind wall of the dead end. It's not their fault, he thinks. Even Rodney's been soundly beaten by Ancient failsafes, if that's what this is. It's almost the only thing they ever made that worked the way it was meant to work.
He scrubs his hands through his hair, and stops suddenly when he hears Rodney's voice in his head, telling him it's rakishly windswept enough already, and there's nobody around here to flirt with, anyway. Instead he shuts his eyes again, and doesn't open them until Lorne calls his name.
He turns to see two people hurrying up the alley, and the figures draw closer he sees it's Hergaard leading Sarna's twitchy little aide, the one who looked into the tower for them. Bryce and Donaldson are suddenly standing awkwardly by the open hatch as if they've been caught doing something they shouldn't be... which, John realises, they probably aren't. Any of them.
But John's too angry at the Avan Parliament and too lost for alternatives and too frustrated with their recent failure to care, frankly, and he saunters over to stand with Lorne as the young man reaches them, breathing hard and sweating.
"Colonel Sheppard," he says quickly between gasps for oxygen, taking in the open hatch and visibly dismissing it, "there is something I believe you should see."
And there is such bare-faced hope in his eyes that John agrees. Not that they've got much choice.
They spare only a second to close up the hatch again, pack away the last tool and coil of wire, and then they follow Kalsan — which is, apparently, his name — back through the thinning crowds of the main streets toward the Parliament. But he veers off the main streets when they're not quite there, leads them on a wending route through older and older buildings, leaning more and more towards the style of Ancient architecture, until finally they come upon a building fronted by stark white pillars and a gaping, ornate doorway.
It bears all the marks of pompous academics, and John knows he's right when they step inside and find themselves surrounded by dusty glass cases, filled with artefacts that range from pottery to bits of shrapnel that may or may not be former Ancient devices.
Kalsan leads them right through the room of glass and through another three rooms and intersecting hallways, all cluttered and dim and clearly well-used. Finally they step through a door into a white room, all white and well-lit, with several long tables and walls of shelves and finally John knows where they are, or what this room is. There are jars of brushes and cases of tools scattered with equal neglect, dog-eared notebooks, several of the heavy Avan computers, and little string-and-paper tags on everything.
Kalsan goes directly to the furthest table, which bears signs of being the most recently disturbed. Perched on the end almost negligently is a roundish, silverish... something, and John doesn't know what it is but he knows at once that it's Ancient. It doesn't even have a tag.
"Before the Parliament approved the apprehension of Seyla Vaal and her sons," he explains breathily, touching the device gingerly, "they raided Eron Vaal's base on the coast."
He says "coast" with delicate revulsion. The Avans have only one punishment for crime, and that is exile. On a planet where the only protection is offered by the sanctuary of the city and its defences, it's tantamount to a death sentence, even if it is a death sentence that hasn't been carried out for two centuries. ost of Vaal's rebels are exiles or their families, who moved to the coast, where the land is fertile, following their loved ones.
John stares at the device. "Okay... what is it?"
Kalsan shrugs. "From the notes found with the device — which we must assume they unearthed in the ruins on the coast — it seems Vaal believed it to be a transportation device. I'm not sure what that means, but..."
He trails off, because Donaldson has descended, wide-eyed, on the device, running his hands gently over its curves. "It's damaged," he says to John.
"Yes," agrees Kalsan. "The notes tell us this, as well. But I brought you here because a similar device was brought to the city by an authorised group, less than a month ago."
"Transportation device?" John looks at Donaldson, who glares down at the disorganised sheaf of yellowish Avan paper that accompanies the device.
"I don't — this isn't really my field, sir," he admits. "Magical insight into Ancient technology is really more..." McKay's job, he doesn't say, or: Zelenka's job. But he bends his head over the device again, anyway. He's pulled open a side panel that was invisible a moment ago. Even John can see two crystals are cracked and charred.
Bryce looks at it, looks at the diagrams interspersed with the notes, and frowns. "Huh," she says, half to herself.
"Huh?" John echoes, with some push behind it, and both scientists look up.
Bryce is suddenly fighting a grin, and as he sees it he feels his heart skip a few beats in ridiculous, desperate hope that he doesn't let show on his face.
"If this is what I think it is, Colonel," she says, "and we can get it working... we might have a chance."
Jeannie was home when they got there, putting away groceries. Madison bounced in, gave her mother a cursory greeting, and then turned an imperious face on Rodney.
"Help me with my space station?" she asked, and it was clearly meant as an order, delivered with sweet challenge like only a five-year-old girl can muster, and even Rodney was helpless against it. He heaved a huge — fake — sigh, and followed Madison into the living room, where she carried the box to the coffee table and started laying pieces out with precision.
John went upstairs to get his book, came back down, and settled in on the couch, just a few feet behind Rodney. For a while he just watched them, unable to look away from the sight of them both bent over the little plastic pieces laid out in careful order, Madison spreading out the instruction sheet with careful hands, the quiet focus of both faces, the two pairs of narrowed blue eyes. They hardly talked, except when Madison loudly reprimanded her uncle for touching something he shouldn't, yet, out of order.
John knew this feeling, had years ago learned to take it as a comfort, to seek it out in a crisis; the sharp radiant aura of Rodney's mind working. It hovered around the pair of them like a bubble, a little circle of fervent concentration, of calm, ignoring everything around them.
Once, early on in the mission, John had seen the change in Rodney's face when he stopped complaining and doomsaying and started working it out, the shift from the panicked I can't to the absent shut up now, I'm working. He'd found himself briefly paralysed, abruptly grounded by it. Now, sitting safe and comfortable in Jeannie's living room, John was practically transfixed by the sheer grace of it, how there were no wasted movements, no unnecessary words.
Affection hit him like a kick to the chest, a wash of realisation, conscious this time, that this was Rodney, this was Rodney. John thought, insanely, that right now he'd really like to touch Rodney just for the sake of touching him, and then he thought: bad idea, for so many reasons, and god, this could get so complicated. And yet it wasn't an urgent feeling but almost matter-of-fact, and he wondered, with calm bafflement: When did that happen?
He wasn't sure how long he'd been watching, mostly watching Rodney's profile and how all the worry and tension and fear of the inevitable had disappeared, temporarily, from his face. But he knew it had to have been a while, because when someone touched his shoulder, and he blinked, they had most of the central section assembled and Madison was turning it critically in her hands while Rodney drummed his fingers impatiently on the edge of the table.
John looked up. Jeannie was there, smiling with a finger to her lips, and she tilted her head towards Madison and Rodney and beckoned John after her. John gave them one last glance and set his book to one side, following Jeannie into the kitchen. Neither Rodney nor Madison looked up. They were too busy arguing about miniature plastic solar panels.
"How long have they been in there?" asked Kaleb, who was stirring something in a bowl on the counter. John hadn't seen him come home; he guessed he'd been too absorbed watching the progress of the space station and... other things.
"Almost an hour," Jeannie told him, sounding amused as she handed him two loaded plates. "Here you go."
John gave the other man an absent wave as he went out onto the patio, closing the doors behind him.
"That was a great present," Jeannie said, handing him a beer from the fridge before going back to something simmering in a pot on the stove.
"I'm glad she likes it," John says, taking a seat at the table. Frankly he'd been a little worried Madison would like the model kit better than what Rodney had bought her, but the fact that she'd spent at least the last hour demanding Rodney's company had more or less erased that concern.
Jeannie seemed to have read his mind, because she looked through the kitchen doorway and smiled, delighted, the warmth fading just a little when she turned back to John. "I've been meaning to thank you for that," she said, tearing open a package of pasta and pouring it into a saucepan of water.
"For what?" John asked, watching her fiddle with knobs on the stove.
When she turned back, she had her arms crossed, and she was wearing an expression John could only define as "determinedly sincere."
"Don't give me that," she scolded. "If you hadn't shown me that video I might have left Atlantis and never spoken to him again." She sat down across from him with a bowl of freshly-rinsed potatoes, and leaned forward on her elbows. "If it weren't for you," she said, "he wouldn't be here."
John swallowed back several different protests against that, both because Jeannie was giving him a kind of warning look and because, in more ways than one, it was sort of true, even if he didn't like to think about it. He swallowed again, against nothing at all, and Jeannie dumped out the potatoes and started peeling. He wasn't going to argue, anyway; there were a lot of times he'd saved Rodney and even more Rodney had saved him.
But if Jeannie didn't know about her brother offering himself up as Wraith food John sure as hell wasn't going to enlighten her about life-changing experiences with Ascension machines or private conversations about alternate-universe doubles. John was probably the only person — outside of Ronon and Teyla, maybe — who'd seen how much Rod had bothered Rodney, who'd been privy to admissions of fear that his friends, or even his sister, might like Rod better. Rod hadn't been any smarter, but he'd been braver, and steadier, and cooler. However little Rodney probably liked to admit it, that probably still meant something, meant a lot in some part of his mind he didn't like to touch too often.
The funny thing was that Rodney pushed a lot of things down, but only for himself. It all still showed clear as day on his face. It had made John a little angry at Jeannie, for a couple of minutes that day in the mess, anyway, because she had to have seen it too, but he'd let it go because, well, siblings tortured each other. Or so he'd heard. It struck him as a natural law. Didn't mean he had to like it, though.
John remembered, uncomfortably, the hard twist of pity brought on by the look on Rodney's face that same day, in John's quarters. He hadn't meant to say it, even, but it had come to him with such speed and force that he hadn't been able to stop himself. "You're scared Jeannie likes him better than you." And it had twisted harder when he'd seen Rodney's face slump from outrage into epiphany, see the face fall.
"That is... possibly true."
"Yeah, well," he said, nervously peeling the label off his beer bottle, "sometimes Rodney needs... a bit of a push."
"Truer words were never spoken," laughed Jeannie, but gradually her expression turned thoughtful, turned sharp. "Can I ask you a question?"
Something about the look on her face, the intensity of the stare, suddenly scared the hell out of him. He covered it by peeling the last of the label from his bottle, and tearing it slowly into tiny pieces. It gave him somewhere to look other than into Jeannie's face. "A question?"
"That is what I said," she said, with more than a hint of a let-me-speak-in-small-words-so-that-you-can-understand tone in her voice. John glanced at her; she tilted her head to one side. "You don't have to answer, but I need to ask."
He looked down at the table; he'd shredded the label, swept the bits into a tidy pile, which left him with nothing else to do with his hands but pick up the bottle and roll it between his palms. Finally he gave her a slow shrug, a patented easy smile. "Ask away."
"Are you sleeping with my brother?"
And there went all his alleged charm in a wash of panic. Jeannie Miller was not so unlike her brother, John thought, staring at her open-mouthed. For a few seconds, it was all he could think, as the rest of his brain was occupied with gibbering. That suspicious, triumphant, I'm-so-much-smarter-than-you-are look was so incredibly McKay that for a second he wanted to do a double-take and make sure he wasn't imagining it, that Rodney himself wasn't sitting here wearing a curly wig.
The really weird thing was that she didn't seem all that bothered about it. She just kept on peeling potatoes. The look she'd given him had lasted only a second, after she'd glanced around to make sure the others were out of earshot. Now she was back to peeling potatoes as if what she'd just asked was the most natural thing in the world. This had to be a Canadian thing. The blunt-and-semi-inappropriate-questions thing. Or maybe it was just a McKay thing. Maybe both. Good god.
"Well, John?" she asked, dropping another peeled potato into the bowl of water at her left elbow, shattering any hopes John might have had that the whole thing had been a hallucination. She raised her eyes a little, a little too carefully casual with a hint of shrewd, and god, it was a McKay thing. It had to be. Nobody could be that evil on purpose.
He'd asked her to call him John, because now that Rodney never called him anything else outside of missions, hearing his rank sounded strange. He was starting to wonder if that had been a mistake. He wondered if clicking his heels together would deposit him safely back in his room on Atlantis, far away from all awkward-question-asking Canadians. But he was here, and Jeannie was still looking at him. Eventually, she rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said, "I said you didn't have to answer. If it's an uncomfortable topic..."
"It's — no," he blurted, feeling he needed to say something to block off the hole rapidly opening in the floor under his chair. "No."
She eyed him. That's what she did, she eyed him, sceptically, mouth tilted a little to the left, hands still moving. Then she shrugged. "All right," she said, sounding, for all the world, like she was disappointed. "If you say so."
John glanced over his shoulder. Rodney was leaning against the couch, and Madison was excitedly waving the tiny Canada Arm II that had come with the model kit, making full use of expansive arm gestures. Rodney's face was fluctuating between alarmed and fond, like he couldn't decide which he'd rather be. John almost smiled despite himself, before he pulled himself together and turned back to Jeannie, leaning his elbows on the table.
"Look, I — why do you ask?" he asked, managing to sound amused by the conversation.
Jeannie rolled her eyes at him. "Oh, I'm not going to out you to your oppressive autocracy, don't worry," she said, with cheerful scorn. "Hand me the salt?"
Bemused, John handed her the saltcellar without looking away from her face, and she shook some into the bowl of water, now turning cloudy with potato starch. She sliced the end off of a piece of potato and positioned it near the end of the cutting board, the saltcellar next to it, and went back to peeling. John stared at that in puzzlement for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "What makes you think... I mean..." He frowned at her. She smiled at him, a little pityingly.
"Please. I am a genius," she reminded him, stirring the water a little. "Also, I live in Vancouver. Is it just guys or do you swing both ways?"
John, who had been taking a sip of his beer, had to labour briefly to keep from choking. When he could breathe again, he coughed: "Christ," and set the bottle carefully down. Tact had apparently not been a central tenet of upbringing in the McKay family, which came as very little surprise, though he'd always thought of Jeannie as the nice one.
John stared at her, wanting to say, desperately, that he could have taken his time off somewhere else, anywhere else, but Rodney had wanted to visit his sister; that he was still feeling guilty over getting Jeannie kidnapped, and he'd made such a big deal about it that John had agreed to go along. It wasn't as if John had anyone else to visit, and Jeannie had greeted him warmly enough. The coast was beautiful in early summer, Rodney had told him. Surfing, he'd been promised. Mountain climbing. Hiking. Really great beer.
Of course all of that had been a carefully worded fabrication on both sides; Rodney wasn't supposed to know that Sam and Keller had asked him to come, to "keep an eye" on Rodney, and John wasn't supposed to know that Sam and Keller had given Rodney no choice in the matter of leaving. He hadn't complained, at the time, though he'd had his misgivings. But he couldn't let Rodney go alone. Aside from knowing Rodney would spend the whole month pretending nothing was wrong, and maybe come back worse than before, he simply couldn't let him go alone. He just... couldn't.
There were a lot of things about this vacation better left unexamined. But John knew by now that the Universe really just liked to blindside him, so it wasn't exactly a surprise that now he was trapped in the kitchen with McKay's sister, who wanted to talk about his apparent big gay crush on Rodney. What weird parallel universe threshold had he crossed today?
He cast another wild glance around the kitchen, but there was no way he could get outside without passing Kaleb, standing out on the deck grilling something made of soy, or even out of the kitchen without disturbing Rodney and his niece, and Rodney would notice something was wrong. Rodney was oblivious about a lot of things, but John was pretty sure that right now even Rodney's five-year-old niece would notice that John was freaked out. As if to underscore the point, Rodney chose that moment to laugh, loudly, and Madison began shrilly correcting him on something Very Important about miniature space station construction.
Jeannie laid a damp hand on his arm, and he turned back to find her face much gentler than a moment ago. "I'm sorry," she apologised. "I didn't mean to freak you out. It just seems a lot closer to the surface the last couple of days than the last time I saw you two together, and you both showed up here kind of wired." The shrewdness was back, but now it was concern rather than amusement. "Mer won't talk about it. I guess you can't, huh?"
And just like that, John felt his backbone bending, as he leaned heavily back into the chair. The anxiety was gone, and somehow thinking about the reason for their leave was less disturbing than thinking about what Jeannie had asked him a minute ago. He rubbed his eyes with one hand. "No," he said. "Sorry."
She looked at him, long and careful, and then stood up, pushing a sixth potato and the potato peeler into his hands. "Here," she said, going into the fridge and coming back with a bundle of leeks. She sat down and started stripping and chopping them. John began uncertainly peeling the potato, glad for something to do with his hands that wasn't clenching them on his knees.
"I guess I knew something happened," she admitted, cutting the leeks into tiny pieces. "Mer doesn't usually ask to visit, usually he waits until I invite him. That way he can pretend I made him come," she said, smiling, and John had to smile back, because he'd figured out that ploy months ago. Rodney loved his sister, and he was maybe even starting to like spending time with Madison, but admitting it out loud would be out of the question.
"I've noticed that," was all John said.
She nodded. "I won't ask, then," she said. "About that, since it's probably classified or something ridiculous like that. But about the other thing..."
John started, almost cutting himself. Jeannie rolled her eyes again. "Don't tell me that's classified too."
"It's..." Damnit, thought John, she'd blindsided him, and he had a feeling she was going to keep asking, too, whatever she said. For a second he was tempted to tell her, just to see the look on her face, tell her it wasn't really his story to explain, that there was a difference between won't and can't. "I told you the truth." He hunched down in his chair, not looking at her, because he had a feeling she'd be looking at him with pity.
"And the rest of it?"
"Does it really matter?" His chest felt tight, out of panic or relief he wasn't sure.
There was a thoughtful silence, filled only with the sound of Jeannie's knife going thunk thunk thunk across the cutting board. "I don't like labels," she said eventually, primly, and then, with a glance over John's shoulder that took in her brother and daughter, and then flicked back, "I'm just asking because... I mean, Mer. He's kind of an idiot."
John frowned, hard, at the potato, as he peeled back the skin and found the dark blot of an eye consuming almost half of it. "Yeah," he agreed.
Jeannie persisted: "He hasn't had a lot of... I mean he's never been any good at... you're important to him." Her lips were pressed thin, and she was looking at him expectantly.
John picked up one of the little knives near the cutting board and hacked out the dark eye from the white flesh like he was coring an apple. He handed it to her, hole through the middle, and she slipped it into the water, again without looking away from his face. "I know."
"And you... I mean I don't think anybody else knows, if that's what you're worried about."
Good, he didn't say, but he thought it, and it must have made it to his face, because Jeannie sighed, in a defeated sort of way, and got up from the table, picking up the bowl of drowned potatoes. "Fine," she said, going over to the sink and rinsing them off. "You're off the hook. For now," she added warningly, with a shake of the potato peeler, and John felt, honest to god, like he'd gotten a reprieve. She smiled at him with a sudden, terrifying sweetness, and said: "And this conversation stays between us, or I'll kill you in your sleep."
And strangely, John found that endearing, and he laughed, reaching for his bottle of beer - which was, after all, very good beer - and tipped it respectfully in her direction. "Deal," he said, taking a swig.
Rodney, followed closely by a chattering Madison, came into the kitchen then. He picked up Jeannie's lone forgotten potato slice, looking furtive. Then sprinkled it with salt and popped it in his mouth, chewing happily.
"That's disgusting, Meredith," said Jeannie, from the other side of the kitchen, but it was a fond smile she gave Rodney's back.
The second person Eron Vaal kills is the weeping blonde woman. Rodney learns her name only in the last seconds of her life, when one of her colleagues shrieks "Cordei!" and catches her body as it falls.
"Did you hear that?" Vaal demands into his radio, or whatever on Ava passes for radios.
"That was a statement," Vaal says. "I want to talk to my wife."
The really scary thing, Rodney thinks, is that Vaal doesn't sound angry, and Rodney's pretty sure you don't shoot people if you're calm. Not generally.
No, Vaal looks disturbingly focused, and he paces to the other side of the control room, listening to the other side of the conversation while Rodney struggles to focus on the screen. The hostages can only make out scraps of what's going on outside, and Rodney stopped listening four hours ago because it was too distracting, and because one of Vaal's men cuffed him across the side of the head for working too slow. Not that they'd know if he was, he said bitterly, afterwards. Not that they'd know Ancient programming code if it bit them on the...
He stopped, there, because the goon raised his fist again and Rodney's a genius, he doesn't need to be told twice.
From what he can make out, the Parliament has taken Vaal's family into custody. Even Rodney knows it's a bad ploy, that the last thing you do with hostage-takers is threaten them. And Vaal doesn't see them as hostages — not against anyone but Rodney, anyway. Vaal wasn't planning on using them as leverage. He just wants to get out with what he came for.
It was the first contact between the control room and the outside world, something Vaal was not apparently expecting. Rodney assumed they would know what was happening up here, at least to a point — the Avans have these strange computer-interface devices that must have told those below how many were present, even who they were. They are not, evidently, useful enough to actually let anyone help them, or even reach them because Vaal's men don't have the things. They make Rodney vaguely uncomfortable; make him think of an episode of The Outer Limits where a global computer system tried to take over the world through people's cybernetic implants and made them insane.
If Vaal were crazy, it would explain a lot. But he's not. It's almost worse.
But it makes him feel torn between fury and gratitude because the strategy is clearly insane, is only making Vaal angrier... and yet it means he's been distracted screaming into the radio for the last five hours, too busy to kill anyone... except Cordei, of course. But Rodney is only a little ashamed of his relief over that. That it hasn't been any of his people. That Vaal is angrier at the Parliament, for a moment, than he is determined to escape.
Until someone on the radio says something that makes Vaal set down the receiver with exaggerated care, walk over to the last four Avan scientists, and kill them all with each a single shot to the head, bang bang bang bang.
They go down soundlessly, like stricken birds or bowling pins. This bizarre, incongruous silence follows the thunder of the gunfire, while all of them hold their breath, watching Vaal, who lowers his now-trembling arm. He isn't even breathing hard. Rodney feels his breath freeze in his throat, and he doesn't move, afraid of drawing attention to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Radek and the others doing the same. The only things moving in the room are Eron Vaal's lips.
"Minister?" he says into the radio, after he has holstered his gun and carefully wiped the spots of blood-splatter from his knuckles with a handkerchief.
And now, in the silence, they can hear the voice at the other end. "This is Minister Sarna." Rodney isn't sure if he's imagining it, but he thinks even crusty old Sarna sounds truly angry.
"We began with twelve hostages," Vaal explains, for all the world like a lecturer of poetry, care and precision in every syllable. "And now there are six. I will leave you to imagine which ones remain."
The static crackle of the radio cuts off with a swipe of Vaal's thumb, and he sets it carefully down on the nearest flat surface. Rodney's still frozen, hands white-cold around his tablet, even though his back is complaining about the position he's sitting in.
Then Vaal looks dispassionately at the undignified tumble of limbs that were once Orsa and the others, and jerks his chin, once. Vaal's men descend on them like polite vultures, stripping off jewellery and ornament. The youngest thug appropriates Orsa's thick eyeglasses and tests them against his own eyes. It's seeing them dropped so unceremoniously back to the floor once searched that unfreezes Rodney's tongue.
"You didn't have to do that!"
He can't believe his own ears. Why is he talking?
Vaal looks surprised, too, but he just gives Rodney a cool, slightly amused look that barely covers what is now evident as despair. Desperation. Their eyes meet and Rodney goes cold.
"The Parliament left me no choice, Doctor McKay." There's no wheedling in it, no soft request to agree, to justify. Vaal's certain. He's so certain it chills Rodney's blood. "We once had laws against the involvement of civilians in such conflicts... they have crossed a line."
It's not justification but close enough, and Rodney actually can't stop himself. "Well maybe you should have thought of that before—" and he stops himself, swallows the words back like bile, but too late. Vaal smiles, a horrible, cold smile, and his eyes flicker sideways, a signal Rodney doesn't catch in time.
Three heavy boot-steps, and that's when Vaal's second shoots Simpson. Two shots, right in the chest, and Simpson doesn't even scream. She just crumples, surprised, blood creeping and blooming black on her expedition jacket. Rodney doesn't have time to react to that, because Ager rises half to his feet, supposedly to stop them, because he's military and therefore, just now, an idiot, which the rebel thug sees, and then Ager's falling, heavily, eyes shocked. And then the gun's turned on Miko, and Rodney's shouting:
"If you shoot her, I'm the only one left with the gene!"
Radek has Simpson, is cradling her shoulders and whispering down at her, glasses slipping down his nose. Rodney barely takes it in before he pushes the tablet away from him and staggers across to stand in front of them.
"You can't," he says, "you can't, you need us both, all of us, and it hasn't been an hour." And suddenly he's in Atlantis again with the storm coming, and still can't believe what he just did, stepping between a deadly weapon and another person. Behind him, he can hear Miko breathing high and shallow, little squeaks of terror, hear Henriksson gulping back air, the telltale sounds of someone trying not to vomit. Rodney's not sure if he's breathing or not. His throat seems to have seized up.
Vaal has his speculative look again, straightens and narrows his eyes. "I gave you too long the first time. Perhaps you didn't believe me. Very well, Doctor McKay," he says, in his dark, hot voice. "A further reprieve. But then we're back on schedule."
He paces back to the window, and the constriction of Rodney's throat eases, and he turns to look at Ager, propped awkwardly against the wall like a mannequin; but Rodney only has to touch him to know the shot was too true and he's gone. He hates himself for thinking that at least he didn't know the man that well, because he needs to, and turns to stare down at Simpson instead. But Radek is meeting his eyes, shaking his head, looking sick and angry and exhausted. "Nothing," he says. "Nothing to do. Rodney..."
Miko is crying now, silent tears muffled by the hands over her face. She's holding her glasses between two fingers and shaking. There's a smear of red on Radek's cheek, red on his hands, red matted in the strands of Simpson's blonde hair where Radek brushed it out of her eyes. Rodney can't tell if she's dead, but knows it might not matter. Might not matter if she's dead yet.
He doesn't know what to do.
"I've got to get back to work," he whispers, and does.
But an hour later, it still isn't working. This has never happened before. It's always hard, there's always pressure, it's always a miracle when he pulls it off, but this is different. The other times he wasn't alone. The other times his people were helping him, not held hostage against his talents, bleeding or under threat. Rodney can't stop thinking about their bodies, how denied the use of their hands and the bolstering influence of one another's ingenuity that's all they are. Flesh and blood and muscle and bone, and strength to strength they're helpless against Vaal and his men, mere raw material to make a point, means to an end.
Rodney starts hearing the unholy volume of his own pulse, beating a counterpoint rhythm under the horrible buzzing of the air, and he hardly hears the next shot, fired without hesitation, Henriksson this time, because Vaal has heeded Rodney's warning and will leave Miko for last, he's sure of it.
He wishes, with growing desperation, that John was here, because John can always centre him even when he doesn't want to be centred. Not many things besides terror can divorce Rodney of his control, of his ability to isolate his mind from his traitorous impulses, this uncomfortable knowledge of physicality. He's never been well in touch with it, comfortable in his own skin, and now his skin is all there seems to be; he can't stop thinking about how his hands shake, his knees hurt, his head hurts, about how fast his heart is beating. But John's not here, and he can't concentrate, he can't do it. He's not sure he could do it without a knife at his throat.
An hour after that, to the minute, Vaal himself crosses the room, drawing his knife as he goes. It's maybe the passing of one heartbeat that Rodney realises; Vaal only uses the knife when he needn't be efficient. The Avan scientists were nothing, were coin, but this is... this is something else. There was something different with Henriksson and Ager, like he knew they weren't close, but with Simpson he watched with strange, focused interest and this time there's something so much worse. He looks at Rodney as he presses the point of the knife gently under Radek's ribs, asks: "How much longer?"
Rodney doesn't remember getting to his feet, but comes to himself to find his own voice pleading, saying "I don't know, you don't understand, it's not that simple," because with Simpson it happened too fast but this time... and two men, their grip like steel, restraining him; someone knees him in the stomach and he folds over.
A second after that, his goons have to hold Rodney back, screaming until he's hoarse, as they back Radek into the wall, wide-eyed with silent terror and all out of words. Vaal's arm moves, swift and easy like when he slit Orsa's throat, like Radek's flesh offers no resistance but a little gasp and hitch of breath. Through it all, Rodney holds his gaze, fighting against every instinct screaming at him to shut his eyes, to look away, because he's trying but there's nothing else he can do, he can at least do this. But it's nothing. It's nothing.
When they let him go he slides down the wall, throat working but silent, hands splayed over his belly like he could hold in the blood spilling out between his fingers. Before they shove Rodney back to his computer Radek's eyes are unfocused and glazed with pain, his lips barely moving.
Vaal advances on Rodney where he's slumped on the floor, the console digging into his shoulder, and places an almost friendly hand on his shoulder. The knife is in that hand, and it presses, again gently, into the tender skin above Rodney's collar, and he can feel hot blood soaking into his shirt, not his blood. His stomach roils, but he keeps it still. Vaal's eyes are hot and maybe mad, but his face is quite calm.
"You're going to be... so sorry when our people get here," Rodney wheezes, because fuck, if he's going out, he's going out with a curse on his lips. "You have no idea what you've..." He wants to say something about Acastus Kolya, about sixty men reduced to sparks against the shield, but he can't, because:
"No one is coming, Doctor McKay," Vaal tells him, and again it steals the breath from Rodney's lungs. He's seen something change in Vaal's eyes, something shift, and suddenly he knows, knows that Vaal no longer expects to escape alive.
"No one is coming for you. Just as no one will save my wife and sons. This is war. No one saves you."
He lets go, and Rodney just breathes for a moment, before resolutely turning, pulling himself up to the console by one hand, reaching for his tablet and starting again.
Rodney doesn't turn around when he's sure, that it's too far out of his grasp for an hour, for two hours, for here and now. He's a fucking coward, but he doesn't turn around because if he looks at them, sees Radek's greying face, sees how Miko is pale and drawn and distant, or the others, he won't be able to work, and then he'll be useless, completely useless, if he wasn't already.
He tries to pretend he can't feel their accusing stares searing into his back.
Three days passed, in something approaching peace and quiet. But by John's count, it had been forty-five days since Ava, and little had changed. Somehow, he'd been expecting something by now, on its own, even with Rodney trying so hard to prevent it.
But every person was different; everyone could stand more or less than the next. Some people could bear keeping such things inside for only days, but maybe the truly stubborn could bear it better. Or at least, longer. John was beginning to fear Rodney was the latter, because he was sleeping better, certainly, but still hadn't spoken a word aloud about anything that had happened on Ava, barring what had been forced out of him on the lakeshore.
Three days passed while John waited, worrying not only about Rodney but himself, too. Jeannie had been as good as her word, but John still couldn't stop thinking about it, especially with the considering looks she kept giving him when she thought he wasn't looking.
Other than that, Jeannie bustled cheerfully in and out, and engaged her brother in several spirited arguments as to the value of public education. Once John and Rodney went with her to the college to watch her lecture, and Rodney interrupted the class no less than six times to correct the textbook. The students enjoyed this greatly until Rodney began to elucidate his point with an explanation of something edging on classified and John had to haul him out of the lecture theatre. That day he was treated to an hour-long lingering rant about the stupidity of undergraduates, the decline of scientific scholarship, and the doom of society in general. He found himself caught up in it, forgetting, for a few hours, why they were there, grinning and shaking his head and deflating Rodney at the appropriate intervals only to watch him puff himself up again.
What finally happened was small, and simple, and he should have seen it coming. But it could have been any one of a hundred things, just waiting for the moment when they were all unsuspecting, Rodney most of all.
Supper that night was pizza, which Madison helped assemble only so long as it took to sprinkle liberal handfuls of grated cheese and chopped green pepper on her own little pie. Then she hopped down from her chair and dragged John and Rodney into the living room. The space station had been completed the previous day and was sitting safely atop a bookcase next to the kitchen door. Instead, Madison brought out a chessboard and a wooden box of pieces, and dumped them onto the coffee table.
"Mummy said you played all the time, Uncle Mer," she said cheerfully, unfolding the board and setting up the pieces.
Rodney stood staring a moment, mouth open. "What's the matter?" asked John.
"Oh, nothing," Rodney said, sitting down on the couch across from Madison. Whatever the moment had been, it had passed, though he picked up one of the pawns and turned it thoughtfully between his fingers before setting it down again. "Are you any good?" he asked Madison, and Madison narrowed her eyes at him.
John laughed at the tableau, Madison glaring challengingly across the table at Rodney, Rodney crossing his arms and glaring right back.
"You're on," he said.
Four games later it was coming up on eight o'clock. Rodney and his niece were evenly matched, something which John might have expected Rodney to react to with frustration, blaming his losses on the flickering of the lights, or the distraction of noise, or hunger, as he did when he lost to other people. Instead he was hiding a smile, though he greeted every success on Madison's part with criticism about how this could have been done more subtly, or how he'd seen that move coming a mile away.
"Yeah, but I still beat you," Madison pointed out, grinning, and turned to John. "Do you play with Uncle Mer, Uncle John?"
John grinned back. "Yup."
"Occasionally," said Rodney bitterly.
"All the time," John told Madison.
"And do you beat him?" asked Madison.
"Occasionally," repeated Rodney, firmly.
John just grinned wider, because the truth was that Rodney had never actually beaten him at chess. Rodney had been flummoxed the first time, and said the only reason he kept playing because it was one of the great mysteries of the universe, and he was a scientist.
Jeannie sat down next to Rodney then, and Caleb followed, crouching down next to Madison. "How's it going, Maddie?" he asked, squinting at the board.
"I beat Uncle Mer twice," said Madison proudly.
"Your Uncle Mer used to lose to me all the time, Mad," Jeannie told her, winking at John. "With these same pieces. And he always used to ask for do-overs, too."
"I did not!" protested Rodney. "You were distracting! Always chewing gum or humming or something!" He turned to John as if for appeal. "She was a cheater, too. Used to move the pieces when I left the room to get a snack."
"You left the board five times every game."
"I have low blood sugar! It's a very serious condition!"
The argument carried on like that for some time, until finally Madison bored of it and got up to select a DVD from the shelf next to the TV, ignoring them all. But she looked up from the DVD player with annoyance on her face. "It won't work."
John, who was closest, got up to help, just as the timer sounded from the kitchen and Kaleb went to check on the pizza. "What's up, Mad?"
Madison scowled at the television. "It won't work."
John looked. He was pretty sure the Sailor Scouts were supposed to talk, but there was no sound coming from the TV. He looked around, saw four speakers around the room, but they were all silent. He'd half expected Rodney to shove them both out of the way to fix it with his usual bluster, but he was still deep in an argument about the vagaries of distraction tactics in chess and wasn't paying attention. So it was left to John to crawl behind the TV to see what was wrong, while Madison plopped back down next to the chessboard, chin resting impatiently in her hand.
It looked like a loose connection, all right, and it took John a minute to find the right cable in the mess of wires behind the TV. He was willing to bet that Jeannie had set up the system, because it was hooked up with the same ruthless determination for functionality and utter disregard for tidiness that Rodney used when he jury-rigged the systems in the city.
He shook his head over the fire hazard and began to patiently sort through the tangle of black cable, reaching up to reconnect the speaker output. But there was still no sound, so John had to check three others, all of which placed him at an uncomfortable angle to the wall, while Rodney and Jeannie went on arguing pleasantly.
When he pushed in the second jack, the room was suddenly filled with a low hum that told him he'd made the wrong connection. He left it while he squinted at the back of the DVD player, trying to figure out the right jack.
It was a second before the back of his neck began to prickle, and he found himself seized by an inexplicable urgency to silence that sound. But he'd lost sight of the correct wire, and while he was searching for it with clumsy fingers, he realised that the conversation behind him had stopped, and that Jeannie was talking, low and scared: "Mer? Mer, what's wrong?"
John stood up so fast that he banged his head against the bottom of the DVD shelf, but it didn't stop him from looking straight at Rodney, seeing the bloodless cast to his face, how he'd gone still and was staring sightlessly at the opposite wall. Then Jeannie touched his shoulder, and Rodney jumped to his feet, knocking the chessboard and the wooden pieces everywhere.
Madison made a high, surprised sound and leaped out of the way as Rodney looked wildly around and barrelled out of the room like he was being chased. A second later, the front door opened and closed, and it seemed to shake them all out of their shock.
John reached behind the TV and yanked all the cables out of the back of the DVD player with one hand. The buzzing noise was abruptly cut off, and he actually swayed for a second in relief, before he caught up with himself and went running for the door.
Jeannie stopped him with a hand on his arm, actually caught him and hauled him back, asking: "What just happened?"
John looked down at her. She looked scared, blue eyes wide, and he looked past her to where Madison was clinging, whimpering, to the edge of the coffee table. "Is she okay?" he asked, his voice tense.
Kaleb stepped out of the kitchen to scoop up his daughter in one fluid motion as Jeannie glanced back at them. "She's fine," he said, looking at both John and Jeannie as he stroked Madison's hair.
"Is Uncle Mer okay? Did I scare him like last time?" Madison asked no one in particular, in a shaky voice not unlike the one she'd used in the park after she'd skinned her knee. This time, though, she looked alarmed, her chin trembling.
"He's — it wasn't your fault," John told her, and looked pleadingly at Jeannie, who frowned at him, still wide-eyed.
"I've got to—" Find him, stop him, help him, but the words didn't come. Kaleb pulled Madison's head down onto his shoulder, the whimpers subsiding, but John was still tense and thrumming, because he couldn't explain, but he had to go. Jeannie finally saw it and nodded, curtly.
"Go, go," she said, and gave him a little push. John gave her a look of undying gratitude, and went.
Outside, it was dark, with nobody abroad to see John as he made his way down narrow, tree-crowded lanes, cut across green and peaceful yards waving with moonlit shadows, nobody to see the subtle panic he thought must be showing on his face.
After ten minutes with no sign he paused to listen, because Rodney was anything but stealthy even now, but the night was silent, humid, and standing by a high fence on the corner a block from Jeannie's house he found himself wreathed with the scent of night-blooming flowers. It seemed hardly real, like the close and quiet streets had swallowed him up. But the stillness made John think of deep water, and suddenly he knew where Rodney had gone.
He walked through the empty gardens of the Shadbolt Centre feeling conspicuous and furtive under the high spotlights gracing the flowerbeds. He almost lost his footing twice as he passed out into the darkened park, hastening as he made his way down the incline towards the lake. Finally his whole line of vision was full of the glitter of moonlight on water, not the ocean but at least water, and he stopped again, scanning the shore, trying to catch his breath.
It took several minutes, or felt like it, as he stood on the hill above the lake and tried to see movement, see a bowed, head, hunched shoulders, see something — and then he did.
Rodney had hardly gone far from the straight path down the hill. John found him sitting in the grass at the edge of where the shore became reeds and mud. He looked perfectly at peace, his elbows resting on his knees, fingers laced together and hanging loosely. His eyes were closed, the only sign of something wrong if John hadn't been able to read his face, the tightness around his eyes and mouth, the little crease between his eyebrows.
"Rodney," John called, softly, to let him know he was there, and saw Rodney start, turn his head so quick that John winced in sympathy. That would hurt, later.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, looking up at John as he sat down next to him in the grass. He seemed honestly bemused, and it confirmed what John had feared, expected.
"Jeannie was worried about you," he lied.
"You..." John rubbed the back of his neck. "You sort of freaked out back there."
"I did?" Rodney blinked at him, looking confused and alarmed and, for the first time, not trying to clumsily hide it. "What did I—"
"Scared Madison, but not too bad," John said quickly, as gently as he could, because Rodney groaned and covered his face with his hands. "Just scared her."
"How can I be like this?" Rodney asked of the air, the words muffled by his hands.
John reached out and prised the hands gently away. Rodney didn't jump, and it only occurred to John then just how much he'd been touching Rodney since they'd arrived on Earth. But any strangeness was pushed away by the needs of the moment, because Rodney didn't even resist, just stared sightlessly down into the reeds. "Like what?"
He felt it before he heard it, the deep breath that came out on a whimper, the hard shudder of pent-up tension in Rodney's shoulders. "He never touched me!" There was a querulous edge to it, something sharp and baffled and desperate, and it wavered over the water before dying away. "He never— how can I still be like this?" He dropped his head again, and then he was standing, arms wrapped around himself, and John could almost feel him pushing it back, trying to make himself still.
Not again, John thought, fiercely, and rose to his own feet, suddenly tired of it, out of patience. "Because you won't talk about it," he ground out. He was angry, angry at Sarna, angry at the Avan Parliament, angry at Vaal, angry at Rodney for keeping it at arm's length for so long that it had become so hard. "Because if you don't, it just gets worse and worse, until you can't control it. Until you start losing track. Until you can't concentrate. Until you lose whole hours of the day. Fuck, Rodney," he swore, as Rodney shrank back in blank surprise, but John couldn't stop himself, "you wouldn't even admit it when you almost blew up the lab. You could have..." But he couldn't bring himself to say aloud what could have happened, how much worse it could have gotten before Keller finally stepped in. What had happened was bad enough.
Strangely, Rodney was calmer now, no longer seeming likely to blow away on a breeze if there'd been one, but he looked stricken, astonished, like he couldn't believe John was saying these things. But John was coming to realise that maybe they'd been too careful, stepped too soft around him, and that had helped make it worse. He'd thought it back in Atlantis, that Elizabeth would have made Rodney talk about it, would have pushed, until it came out, loud and messy, that it was like an infection, it had to hurt, had to burn, before it could heal, and they'd all forgotten that. They'd thought more to protecting Rodney than helping him.
"I told you," Rodney said, with a bite of impatience to mask the white-faced terror now bubbling perilously close to the surface. "I can't."
"You have to." John was standing near him now, could feel the heat radiating off Rodney's body, smell the sweat of his flight through the silent streets. "You have to, or it'll be like this forever." He tried to speak softly, insistent.
He saw Rodney's fingers tighten around his upper arms, saw his chin lift, defiantly. But the mouth opened and froze there, like he couldn't remember what he had planned to say, or thought better of it. Instead, he glanced at John, an assessing, frankly terrified look before dropping his eyes, and said: "You were there."
It was a test, John realised with a jolt. A reach, the first one, and he wasn't about to pass up the chance. "You didn't tell me what they did," he pressed, ignoring how Rodney twitched, slightly.
"Sure I did," he said, blinking rapidly. "You read my report."
"Rodney," John said, and then, when Rodney still didn't look at him, "Rodney," and then he had to face the raw, awful look in Rodney's eyes.
"You told everyone what happened. You didn't tell me what — what they did."
That awful rawness again, Rodney closed his eyes over it and sat heavily, suddenly down on the grass.
"Because I can't, okay?" he shouted, and the words dodged back and forth across the water. Even John jumped, at the way the shout split the silence, at the torn-open agony in Rodney's eyes, but he held firm against it because he needed to, crouching down next to him in the grass. Rodney went on talking, in a torrent of words running together, shaking his head.
"He told me to do something I couldn't do and then he killed people because I couldn't do it, one by one, and I couldn't work fast enough, and when he ran out of people to kill, he—"
His voice was climbing higher and higher until finally he shut his mouth, and his face just... crumpled. He was shaking like a flag in a high wind, fingers clenching and unclenching.
"I couldn't do it," he repeated, "and when I think about it I remember being there, and my head aching and him cutting Orsa's throat and Miko crying and people pissing themselves and that fucking buzzing noise and—" and John reached out and gathered Rodney to him without thinking, because it looked like Rodney was about to fall. He leaned into John without hesitation, which was surprising and oddly pleasant, something John tried not to think about too closely.
"It wasn't your fault," John said firmly.
"I should have been able to do it," Rodney protested. "I just... I couldn't work fast enough—"
"Vaal was insane," John insisted. "You can't assign reason to crazy people. You can't line up your motives with his, you can't gauge how smart you are or how good you are by what he did!"
"I couldn't—" He felt Rodney's breath hitch, "I couldn't work fast enough." The broad shoulders in John's arms were shaking, and Rodney's face was pressed wetly into the crook of his neck but he could still hear the words.
"How can I?" he asks. "How can I go back and be responsible for... for their lives, for your life when I couldn't even..."
John sighed, shut his eyes. He wasn't listening. He understood that — he couldn't listen. It dawned on him properly, then, though he'd known it academically, that Rodney had been living in that cramped, terrified moment at the end of Vaal's knife for the past six weeks. He slid one hand to the back of Rodney's neck and held it there, as Rodney whispered:
"What do you do?"
And John answered calmly: "You talk. You talk about it, everything, over and over until it's... it's not so big." He smiled against the side of Rodney's neck. "You're good at talking."
"Ha, ha." Rodney muttered, and lifted his head a little. "I'm sorry, I'm getting you all — I shouldn't be — " He started to withdraw, but John held on, until the tension in Rodney's back muscles drained away, his loose-curled hands resting tentatively along John's ribs, hot even through his clothes.
"Don't apologise," he said, trying to sound stern, but he had to swallow against the lump in his throat. "You don't ever need to apologise to me."
"Okay." The agreement was hesitant, and a second later, Rodney added: "Do we have to do this now?"
John tensed, and forced it away before it gave him away, because for a moment he'd thought Rodney had said that with a double meaning... but he couldn't have.
"I'm so tired," Rodney murmured, as explanation.
"No," John told him. "Not tonight. But soon..."
"I know." And Rodney sounded annoyed, so much like himself that John chuckled.
"Thanks," came the whisper from right next to John's ear, and Rodney's arms tightened around him, just for a second. It was just what it was, just gratitude, and exhaustion, though it could have been strange. But it was only Rodney, and it felt almost dizzyingly natural. Like hugging John was something he'd always done.
John sighed again, a deep breath in, a heavy exhalation, the smell of Rodney, stress and sweat and the bitterness of exhaustion, all around him like the still summer air. The following rush of affection, of impending grief, of everything else, was so intense that he had to close his eyes against it, searching for something to say that would bring reality back into balanced focus, keep him from feeling like he'd drown in it.
"We need you there, Rodney."
Rodney's body felt limp now, exhausted, heavy, as he muttered: "Sam's just as smart as I am."
And then John had to strain not to laugh, because even now there was a trace of bitterness there, of grudging respect. "Maybe," he agreed, and lowered his head, Rodney's hair brushing under his chin. "But she's not you."
"What I'm thinking, Colonel, is that they just couldn't read it." Hergaard is leaning over the sheaf of papers they found with the device, swiftly copying line by line into English as Bryce and Donaldson argue over the device itself. At the other end of the bench, they're working fast, faster than John has ever seen Rodney's people work. John knows why, and doesn't interrupt except when he needs to. Usually he's more than happy to understand the steps, usually Rodney doesn't give him a choice, but right now he just wants it to work.
"They had this thing for how long, and they didn't know how it works?" John thinks his voice sounds disbelieving, but he can certainly believe it. Ava seems to have very particular blinders, seeing only what it wants to see.
"It sounds like close to a year," Hergaard says absently. "Kalsan told me they can't really read Ancient, not real Ancient, and if this thing came with a database like most of our artefacts did, they'd only have been able to make out a few words. Just enough to know what it was, but not enough to make it functional."
John tries not to fidget and mostly fails. Next to him, Teyla shifts in her seat, making no sound, but managing, anyway, to project something like calm down, you're not helping, and he forces himself still without thinking.
"Can you get it working?" John asks instead.
"We're almost there now," Bryce tells him, twisting at something inside the device with a pair of pliers. "We just need to know how to initialize it."
John looks at Hergaard, who waves a hand before he can say anything. "Almost there," he says.
A hand grasps him firmly by the elbow, and John finds himself being lifted out of his seat, looks up to see Teyla's raised eyebrows and expectant stare. "I'll be outside," he tells the three civilians, and lets Teyla all but drag him out into the alley behind the workshop.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," he complains once Teyla's shut the door behind them, but he leans against the cool stone of the wall anyway, shutting his eyes for a second.
"I do not think they will think less of you right now," Teyla says firmly, "and you are about to lose your composure, which will help no one."
"Listen to her, Sheppard," comes a voice from the other end of the alley, and John looks up to see Ronon approaching.
"What's going on?"
Ronon shakes his head. "Nothing good," he says. "Vaal's not answering the radio anymore, but, uh..." Ronon does the only thing he does that qualifies as nervous fidgeting, threading fingers through his tight-twisted dreads, looking vaguely over John's shoulder. His eyes drift back to look into John's like he had to take a minute to steady himself. "There've been more shots," he says. "Last two hours, once on the hour."
"What?" John rockets up straight, pushing away from the wall, and then has to lean back, shutting his eyes. "Shit."
"Sarna talked to him once a few hours ago," Ronon says. "Wouldn't say what he said, but that was the last contact. Sheppard..." He sounds almost hesitant, for Ronon at least. "We don't even know if..."
John can hear the last words, and cuts Ronon off. "I'm not having this conversation," he snaps. "Sarna may be willing to leave people in there, but I'm not."
"Nah, of course not," Ronon says, sounding almost hurt. "I just meant..."
"No one is suggesting we stop trying, John." That's Teyla, with her sharp/gentle voice cutting through John's tension, which he wishes she wouldn't, because if he's angry he doesn't think about being scared. "But we must be... prepared. For the worst." Even Teyla's voice cracks a little, and John tells himself he shouldn't take that as a sign.
"Yeah," agrees Ronon, shrugging.
John stares at them both, at Ronon watching him uncertainly, at Teyla's open, brittle concern, and he has to shut his eyes for a moment or lose it altogether. "I'm sorry," he says, as even as he can, and then: "It's been ten hours."
And it's getting dark, and they haven't slept, and they're so far outside the realm of how things normally go bad on missions that he can't even remember what it's like to be captured by good old-fashioned mercenaries or shot at by religious fanatics. When did that get to be the good old days?
"We are all tired," says Teyla, diplomatically, and before he knows what's happening, she's laying hands on his shoulders, resting her forehead on his, and he shuts his eyes, trying to draw some calm from her like he's done in the past. But when she turns to do the same for Ronon, John just feels jittery again, buzzing like the city is.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Bryce is standing in the open door, beckoning them all inside. "We think we're just about ready."
It takes Donaldson five whole minutes to explain, and John has to have him repeat it.
"Why haven't we ever come across this technology before?" he asks of both scientists. Donaldson shrugs.
"We know most of the protected planets in the Atlantis database were sites for either social or scientific experiment," he says, looking at Bryce. "That interference pulse is something we've never seen before, and it's pretty recent, relatively speaking."
"How relative are we talking?" Ronon asks, leaning on the workbench in the centre of the room.
"On the order of ninety-nine hundred years," Donaldson says. "Probably one of the last-ditch efforts after they abandoned Atlantis. We know several groups of Ancients stayed behind in this galaxy to work on weapons and defence."
"So I'm asking again: how come we've never come across this technology before?" John knows he's spoken sharper than he meant to, but can't quite bring himself to care.
Bryce crosses her arms and stares thoughtfully at the device. "I'd guess that they abandoned the experiment, because it's of limited effectiveness."
"And by 'limited,'" interjects Teyla, calmly, "what do you mean?"
John looks at her. She seems as cool as ever, but even he can see there's a hint of impatience in her manner, some tension in the corners of her eyes. He's seen that tension before, but not often outside of cullings.
Somehow the fact that Teyla's frightened makes him feel calmer.
Bryce is touching different parts of the device, as if making sure it isn't going to fall apart. "Well, Colonel," she says, carefully, "we think it only works in contact with those being transported."
John raises an eyebrow expectantly when she doesn't continue. "Meaning...?"
"We think two, maybe four people," Donaldson explains, looking quickly at Bryce, like he's taking his courage in his hands. "And frankly, sir, we have no idea whether..." But a hard look from Bryce shuts him up.
"Speak up, doc," John presses.
Bryce glares feelingly at Donaldson, who averts his eyes, before facing him again. "We weren't able to figure out how to target the thing," she admits, all in a rush. "If it has an automatic targeting system, it hasn't offered it up."
John turns to stare at the device, gleaming dully on the workbench. "So how does it..."
"Well, Doctor Bryce has an idea," Donaldson says, grumpily.
Bryce sighs. John waves a hand impatiently. "Well?"
"We couldn't test it and be certain," she explains. "I have the gene, but apparently not strongly enough to use the device the way it was intended."
She drops her hands to her sides, sensing his impatience. "We won't know until we try."
At the foot of the tower, there are only a few members of the Avan guard and a handful of civilians, under-Ministers and a couple of what look like techs. The streets are empty as night falls, and as John stands at the edge of the square beneath the power station, he realises that the city is holding its breath. And not just the city itself — though the buzzing of the field hasn't lessened any — but the people, too. He's already guessed that things are not as stable, politically, as Sarna made out at first, and he has to assume that the situation in the tower has made things worse.
He's felt this before, towns about to burst, when he was stationed in Afghanistan; before the townspeople turned on the soldiers, on each other. Before people came to the point of realising that the awaited moment was at hand.
It never went well for the soldiers. They can't wait any longer.
Lorne, standing at his side, inclines his head, asking without asking. "Sir?"
"Yeah," says John. "How much longer until the lockdown terminates on its own?"
Lorne turns his head, takes in the cluster of Avans with their neat-pressed clothes, their sleek but primitive weapons — their infuriatingly relaxed postures, like this is a company picnic. In an undertone, as if he's trying to mask his own emotions, Lorne tells him: "Two more hours, according to the Ministers." He shifts from one foot to the other, an unconscious expression of unease. "Bringing us up on seventeen hours of lockdown. Their solar cycle's kinda wacky." Because Ava's days are thirty-four hours long. Seventeen hours, co-incidentally, the same average length of a culling, even though Ava hasn't seen one in centuries. John tries not to feel bitter. Not about that, anyway.
John must have been quiet for a while, because when Lorne speaks again, it's with some uncertain strain. "Sir?"
"They have to know by now... that they're not getting out."
John doesn't look at him. He doesn't want to see the grim expression he knows Lorne is wearing. "I think if we're lucky, he killed the station techs first. He didn't expect to end up locked inside." He turns his head, now, to glance at Lorne, but doesn't find the look of surprise at his callousness. Instead, Lorne is nodding, slowly.
"That's what I figured. He hasn't exactly been making demands."
John's glad he doesn't have to justify it — because by now he's beyond giving a damn about the Avan scientists on principle. They're probably dead, and if they're not, this is no longer a diplomatic situation. Sarna's got no intention of negotiating, and Vaal's not going to be taken alive. That's all that matters — that, and that in two hours, anyone still alive... won't be.
"We have to get inside."
John starts, because he hadn't meant to speak aloud, but now he has to explain himself. "Bryce and Donaldson think they've got the transport device working. They're just running a final test."
He's not sure what he expected from Lorne, but what he gets is instant attention. "When are we going in, sir?"
And John smiles, just for a second, because if there was anything he needed just then, it was the knowledge that his people would follow him just about anywhere. But this isn't about Lorne or Cadman or Whitehall or the others. This is about his team.
And anyway, there are practical considerations.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm, Major," he says, and means it, "but you're staying out here."
Lorne protests: "But sir—"
John interrupts him. "The thing can probably only take two, three people, and from what I'm told, I'm going to have to concentrate pretty hard to even manage that much. It's too much of a risk to leave none of our own people here on the outside."
"Sir, I really think I ought to—"
"And somebody has to be out here to keep an eye on our remaining geeks," John points out, watching Lorne carefully out of the corner of his eye. For a second the younger man is tense, eyes flicking up to the tower, and then down again. Finally he relaxes.
"Whatever you say, sir," he murmurs.
Lorne spends a lot of time with the scientists, John knows; almost as much as he does. Anybody with the gene gets called upon now and then to play light switch, but John also knows that Lorne and Zelenka are pretty close, too. For a second he feels selfish, wanting to be the one to go in, but he has to go, has to be the one to run the thing, and it's his call. For whatever reason, it's his call.
"So you'll be taking Ronon and Teyla?"
John nods. "Any minute now, if we're lucky."
Lorne gives him a sceptical look. "Something to say, Major?" John asks wearily.
Lorne shakes his head. "No, sir. Just wasn't aware you and Lady Luck were on speaking terms."
John sighs, does a final check on his weapons. "Yeah, well, let's hope she's in a good mood today, because we're going to need it."
They make their way back to the secluded workshop, where Bryce tells him the device is ready — "as it's ever going to be," she qualifies, nervously, and runs him through the procedure.
"So explain to me how I target this thing, again?" he asks, laying his hands on the indicated panels, tentatively reaching for the familiar pull of Lantean machines. It's there, but it's faint and elusive.
"It seems to be largely mental," she tells him. "I suppose ordinarily you would focus on a place you'd been before. How well do you remember the control room?"
John shrugs, uneasily. "Ish?" he hazards.
She shakes her head. "It does scan its surroundings up to a good long range, but I think it will work better if you can form a solid emotional connection with the target, and the machine should fill in the details. I suppose it can be a person as easily as a place."
And just like that, John knows he can do it.
"We're not going to end up half inside a wall or anything, are we?" Ronon asks, standing a few feet away with his hands at his sides, like he doesn't want to touch the thing. And damn Rodney for showing Ronon Star Trek, anyway. Real matter transport didn't work that way, even John knew that, and when had his life become so strange that he knew that?
But Bryce assures him that they won't. "That falls under 'details,'" she explains, as Ronon and Teyla join him next to the device.
He has to make a last gesture. "You guys know you don't have to do this, right?" he asked. Carter cleared it, broadly speaking, but even he knows it's a pretty desperate kind of plan. They only know vaguely what they're walking into, in terms of where the walls are, how many men, etc. The mental state of the rebels, though, or whether any of them are even still alive, and if they are, what kind of weapons... they're pretty much going in blind.
"We are sure," Teyla tells him, looking down at her hands as she lays them on the device, next to his. He looks up at Ronon, who hesitantly does the same, then looks up with an almost bored expression.
"What, you think we're going to let you do this on your own?"
He's so grateful he can't say it, simply can't, so he doesn't try. Everything's down to this moment, their hands on the cool metal of the device, his focus on their target. Because from the second Bryce mentioned it he knew what his target was, the only tie strong enough to bring him whole into the room with it, and he's only having second thoughts about putting the rest of his team in this situation.
But they're ready, they've said so, and he can't stop his hands shaking, because god, they don't know what they'll find.
They could all be dead.
But he can't face that. So instead, he closes his eyes, and reaches, and the device answers, reaching back, pulling him into rapport with all the grace and poise of a rusted Chevy. John feels the connection stutter a little, but it's there and strong, and waiting for him to do something, and he has to pause to steady himself, because the unerring buzz of the city is all twisted up with the gut-gnawing panic that's been his constant companion for the past fifteen hours.
"Just so we're clear," he says, pitched low so only his team can hear, "if he's... if our people are dead..."
Ronon answers with all the menace John can't show, and Teyla's voice is like a knife, clean and sharp.
"No mercy," says Ronon, and Teyla says:
That's all it takes. The image of Rodney clear in his mind, John reaches, and then he pulls, and then the room bends and shifts around them, and they're gone.
And then they're there.
It's disorienting for maybe a tenth of a second, and then the room untwists into sharp focus around them. Somehow they get turned around so they're back to back, and it's enough time for John to take in the room.
Three seconds. That's when the shooting starts.
Later, he's unable to say who shot first. There are voices, a confused tangle of them, and then noise, incredible noise. John finds himself falling into a crouch as at his back, Ronon and Teyla do the same. Something hisses past his shoulder and hurts, but only in passing, because before his nerves can deliver the message properly to his brain he's wheeling and raising his gun, and a grubby man in scuffed armour is falling back, clutching at his throat. Twelve seconds, eleven shots — he's not sure whose or how many of each — and there's just them and two rebels, one of which is clearly Eron Vaal only because he's better dressed...
...and has his hands on Rodney, a curved knife pressed to his carotid.
It's a bone-jarring sight, an almost physical jolt of terror and rage as Rodney's eyes meet his, amazed and terrified and pissed, but John forces himself to calmness so he can take it in. He rises to his feet. In the intervening three seconds Teyla has dispatched the last remaining rebel aside from Vaal, and is rising to her feet as well, with absurd grace and a look of murder. Twenty-seven seconds, Ronon is rounding with his gun on Vaal even as Vaal speaks, twisting Rodney's arm, just a little, where it's twisted behind his back. John knows that to have gotten to Rodney that fast, he had to have been nearby when they appeared, within arm's reach even, and that's when he sees the blood spotting Rodney's collar, the white cast to his face, the bruises on his jaw. He looks only half-conscious, and he's sagging a little in the lunatic's grasp.
And Vaal is mad. John can see it in his eyes. Maybe he wasn't yesterday, but today he's out of options, and nothing can drive a man past his endurance faster.
It's been thirty-one seconds, and it takes John only two more to make the decision, heart pounding in riotous percussion to the persistent horrible buzz of the air, raising his gun to point it into Vaal's face.
Vaal locks eyes with him, bares his teeth, snarls: "I'll kill him like the rest."
John sees Ronon lower his own gun, sees Teyla moving up behind him, and shakes his head. Thirty-eight seconds.
"No, you won't," he says, and squeezes the trigger.
He's leaping forward to catch Rodney as Vaal falls heavily backwards with a nasty gurgling sound, the knife clattering to the floor.
Rodney's a dead weight with shock, soundless and letting John lower him to the floor. He sits against the control panel, eyes still screwed tight shut, as Ronon checks to make sure Vaal's dead, then drags him to the wall and leaves him there with his men.
John crouches in front of Rodney, who is breathing slow and careful, mouth pressed thin, jaw clenched.
"Rodney?" he murmurs, touching, carefully, only so much as he has to. "Rodney. Are you okay?"
Rodney's eyes fly open, and John starts at the bright blue irises, the dilated pupils, as Rodney stares at him like he can't believe what he sees. John can sympathise. It's taking all his control not to break down right there. But breakdowns are for later.
"You — John?" he asks, and his voice is high and hoarse. In an astonished whisper, he adds: "You came."
Rodney's clearly not really here right now, and John is grateful when Teyla kneels down at his side, and whispers: "We are here, Rodney." She smiles, gently, when Rodney's eyes flicker to her face. "You are safe."
Rodney's eyes fall shut again, and he leans back. "Christ," he whispers, and then he gestures, frantically, like it's all he can do. John knows the jelly-legged feeling of physical shock, so he just looks.
"Radek," Rodney whispers. "Vaal — he —"
Ronon is crouching over Zelenka, looking grim but checking pulse, holding his wrist over the nose and mouth to check breathing. Behind him, Miko is huddled against the wall, possibly in the process of hyperventilating.
"Still alive, but he's hurt pretty bad," Ronon tells them, which John can tell already. There's a lot of blood. Ronon turns his head to Miko and says, not unkindly: "Stop it." And she does.
But Zelenka's still bleeding and unconscious, and there's still more than an hour before they can hope for help. John reaches for his radio.
Lorne sounds relieved. But the next one hundred and eleven minutes are the longest of John's entire life.
Crawling into bed after they made their way home from the park in the dark, Rodney more or less slept for five days, coming out for meals and sometimes going for walks when John coaxed him out, but not doing much else. It was a change, but after their moment by the lake they hadn't discussed Ava further, and John couldn't decide whether this was progress or not.
At night John wasn't sure Rodney even dreamed, but he made sure that when he fell asleep some part of him was touching the other man; a hand, a shoulder, something. It seemed to help, and John tried not to read too much into it, because Rodney seemed to sleep soundly again even if John, himself, was kept awake for hours at a time by things he couldn't control and absolutely would not act upon.
The level of tension in the house had slacked off considerably, and after they'd come limping in on Saturday evening after Rodney's flight into the night, John had expected something — he wasn't sure what — from Jeannie, from Kaleb. But nothing happened. Madison was... well, five, but just like before she seemed to know something was wrong, and she was quieter than usual, giving John soft, bright little smiles when she saw him.
He was pathetically grateful to Jeannie, who on the second day with hardly a sound from Rodney had stopped him on the way to bed and hugged him, hard, and gone away to her own bed with a sound like a sniffle but not one single awkward question.
Early in the still-dark morning of the fifth day John woke up and there was nobody touching him.
It brought him to full consciousness with disorienting speed, and he opened his eyes to see that Rodney had rolled over in the bed, and was facing away from him. But he was still and breathing slowly, deeply, a quiet, almost comforting shape under the blankets.
Sleeping. Not shaking, hardly moving. The way Rodney used to sleep.
They'd left the curtains open and in the moonlight John could see the curve of Rodney's cheek, his right ear, the flutter of eyelashes just barely visible. John couldn't see his face, and in a flash of comprehension he thought that was good, because god, if seeing Rodney able to sleep peacefully without him hurt this much, then seeing Rodney's face vulnerable and open like he knew it must be would probably kill him.
On the tail of that, even as the feeling made itself known, he was rolling out of bed, standing barefoot on the carpet, breathing hard. Cursing himself, silently, because what kind of person... what kind of friend was he? To have enjoyed it, that Rodney had been so torn up inside that he'd needed something — not someone — to hold on to at night, just so that he didn't wake up screaming?
He pulled on a t-shirt and slipped out of the room with his heart pounding.
He downed two glasses of ice-cold water from the filter jug in the refrigerator, and refilled it as he tried to catch his breath, his teeth chattering. He'd more or less calmed down, the sweat drying on the back of his neck and the brittle sharp thing in his belly easing away, by the time he'd opened the fridge to put the jug away. When he shut the door, Kaleb was standing there, and John nearly jumped out of his skin.
He didn't. But the noise he made was pretty undignified — somewhere between a cough and a hiccup. As if to make him feel better, Kaleb offered up an embarrassed smile. "Sorry," he whispered, "I didn't mean to startle you."
John reflexively pressed fingertips to the side of his neck, where the pulse was racing. "It's fine," he assured the other man, and then, in a slightly indignant tone, he asked: "what are you doing up?"
"Heard somebody moving around downstairs." Kaleb shrugged, and for the first time John noticed the baseball bat in Kaleb's right hand. "After what happened last year, can't be too careful — I just wanted to make sure the security system was armed." As casually as if he'd been carrying a book, Kaleb leaned it against the wall and reached for the handle of the fridge door, looking closely at John.
"Do you maybe want something stronger?" he asked, and a moment later John realised he wasn't opening the fridge, but using the handle as leverage to reach for something on top of it. When he pulled down a bottle of something unquestionably alcoholic, John found himself nodding gratefully before he could even read the label.
He didn't look at it until he took the first sip from the half-glass Kaleb poured him, and then he set the glass quickly down until the feeling had returned to his gums. Kaleb nodded sympathetically and turned the bottle around so John could read it. Drambuie. Right. That would explain why his tongue was still tingling.
"Thanks," he said hoarsely, after a second — smaller — sip.
"You're welcome," Kaleb said peaceably, taking a sip from his own glass without even flinching.
Goddamn Canadians, John thought without much ire, but then again it had been a while since he'd drank anything older than three months. Athosian ale didn't often get much of a chance to age.
Kaleb was still watching him calmly, so calmly that it made John suspicious. "So seriously, what were you really doing down here?" he asked.
Kaleb grinned. "Didn't buy that, huh? Well, it's partly true." The grin faded a little, and he shrugged. "One of us has been checking every night, more or less. Jeannie was worried about sleepwalking."
It took John a minute to make the connection. Kaleb shrugged. "Apparently he used to do it when he was a kid, and sometimes PTSD can bring up childhood stuff."
John covered his surprise by taking another sip of his drink, while he studied Kaleb Miller. He'd always been careful around Rodney's brother-in-law, because he was Rodney's brother-in-law as much as anything else, but also because Kaleb didn't give much away with his face. But over the last couple of weeks he'd kind of come to like the guy, little as he saw him. Respect him, at least, because anybody who could live with any McKay and not go stark raving mad deserved his respect. It gave them something in common, and John coughed again as the comparison made him flush. Instead, he looked up at Kaleb and asked:
Still unreadable, Kaleb nodded. "I was in a car accident with my brother when I was finishing my graduate degree — right after I met Jeannie," he said. "We were coming back from camping up on Golden Ears and we went off the road... I should say the road went out from under us. Subsided in the rain. It was the end of the season, so there wasn't much traffic, and we were pretty far from the road. Nobody found us for more than a day." He took another small, unflinching drink from his glass. "Jeannie was there a few months later when it finally caught up with me."
John stared at him, thinking that now Kaleb's studied calm made a lot more sense — the calm of someone who'd had to re-learn it from scratch. "Your brother?"
Kaleb shook his head. "Died on impact." With that same thoughtful calm, like it was distant and couldn't really touch him anymore.
John didn't apologise; he hated when strangers apologised for things. Besides, he knew from experience that in the flash of a memory, being trapped with a dead body for hours could be much worse than losing anyone, whoever it was, even if the priority wasn't lasting.
"You dealt with it." It really wasn't a question, and Kaleb didn't take it as one.
"Therapy. Jeannie. A lot of help, just like everyone else does it. It never goes away completely." He gave John a grim, one-sided smile. "I still don't much like driving. But I gather you've been there."
Yeah, John didn't say, and looked down into his glass. "I didn't know about the sleepwalking," he said instead, "but it makes sense."
"So he hasn't been?" Curious, nothing else. The words childhood things seemed to hang between them.
"Good," Kaleb said, and meant it. A second later, he murmured, with new heat, "Jeannie doesn't talk about her parents much, but sometimes I'm glad they were dead before we met."
John felt like he'd been tricked into looking up, but when he did, Kaleb was glaring vaguely into the dark living room.
When Kaleb looked back, he seemed confused. "I just really didn't want to have the conversation with Jeannie about why I didn't want Madison spending time with those particular grandparents. I'm not sure it would have gone well."
John felt his jaw clench, and forced himself to relax. He didn't say what he was thinking, what he'd thought more than once over the past two weeks about "those particular grandparents," but Kaleb made it unnecessary by changing the subject.
"I told him it was his fault." It was that same careful calm again, and John was almost relieved, because this time he could feel angry, if just a little, with better justification.
"I know." He tried to put just the right shade of warning into the words, and was rewarded with a flush suffusing Kaleb's face.
"He told you, huh?"
John shrugged. Rodney had told him, if not in so many words, while they'd waited at Jeannie's deathbed under the mountain. Talked about how he'd screwed things up and it had been his fault like Kaleb had said, how Madison would never forgive him, because she was smart, she'd know. But John didn't tell Kaleb that. He understood why Kaleb had said what he'd said, understood it down to his bones, and didn't think the other man needed the burden of knowing he was at least part of the reason Rodney had tried to feed himself to a monster.
Kaleb sighed anyway. "I felt like shit over it." Again, not an apology. "Especially when he... I mean, I expected him to deny it. You know? Jeannie does that, too. Nothing's ever her fault."
"Yeah, I'm familiar with the tactic," agrees John, smiling despite himself.
"But he didn't. He just... he just said 'we'll find her.' Went so white I thought he was going to faint." Kaleb ran one finger around the rim of his glass, drawing out a high, clear note. "Bastard couldn't even let me take it out on him without making me feel guilty. I thought 'god, that is so like him.'"
"You were surprised?"
"Hell, yes," Kaleb said, and then turned thoughtful. "I guess I shouldn't have been."
John had found himself in this position a lot lately, with Jeannie a couple of times and at least once with Sam, reminding people who'd come to expect certain things of Rodney that Rodney was different, now. Now, in the middle of the night, it didn't seem so important, and anyway, Kaleb already knew.
"I don't know why it should have," Kaleb continued. "Jeannie said he was different after she went to Atlantis the first time. Seemed kind of spooked by it, to be honest. But happy. But when guys with guns came storming into our house in the middle of the night... well."
"Easy to forget?" John suggested, because it was, he supposed. Rodney did his best work under stress, but only if he could actually do something.
"Yeah. And it wasn't like I got to know him that well the first time I met him, you know? Half an hour's very uncomfortable dinner, and then fifteen minutes' lecture on how I was a mistake and ruining Jeannie's life and..." He shook his head, dismissively. "But that was years ago. I guess I should have known."
John downed the rest of his glass, this time enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat. He shook his own head. "No, you shouldn't have. How could you?"
"Hm." It was a non-committal noise if John had ever heard one.
"A lot of people wouldn't have given him another chance. You did," John pointed out, because it was true. Kaleb stared down at his glass for what seemed like a long time, before finally looking up, wearing another of his one-sided smiles.
"Well, yeah," he said, like it was obvious. "He's family."
The moment the lockdown cuts out - the very moment - Keller is one of the first up the tower, leading a handful of medics. They work with cool efficiency, the controlled urgency of triage everywhere. The Avan soldiers and doctors hang back, almost embarrassed. They know there's nothing here for them to find, not of their own. It's been too late for their people for most of a day.
John has the bad news from Keller in six and a half minutes; six dead Avan scientists and three of their own: Ager, Henriksson, Simpson. Rodney and Miko are alive and whole, though Miko is a sobbing mess, and Rodney won't say anything, just stares around at them all like he can't believe his eyes. It's been fifteen hours since John left them there.
Zelenka is somewhere in between. Keller's exact words, uttered through pinched lips, are: "Not as bad as it looks." John takes her at her word, just knows that there's a lot of blood, more than there should be.
As they rush the three survivors through the corridors to the infirmary, people are watching from open doorways, looking shocked like they do every time, even though this happens pretty often, the rush from the gate to help. John follows them all the way, doesn't even stop to explain anything until Zelenka's rushed into surgery and the two scientists are sedated, Miko because she's still a mess, can't stop crying, and Rodney because Keller has good instincts.
Then John has to go, has to explain, has to tell Carter they lost three people and they might lose another before the night's out.
They don't. From what John gets of the surgery, it goes off without a hitch, just a nick of the large intestine and a lot of blood. A lot of blood, John remembers, but Keller assures him, for the second time and with far less tension in her face, that it wasn't as bad as it looked. Not physically, anyway.
The first three nights in the infirmary John's there all the time, and after the second night, the staff stop trying to shoo him out. Only the new arrivals try anymore, anyway.
Rodney wakes up, the first time, slow and fuzzy, bleary-eyed but sharp and clear in an instant, like he's clawing up out of his own grave. He sits up so fast he pulls the IV, setting off an alarm that brings Keller running, and then quietly scolding, as she calmly tapes it back in place. John sees the pinpoint look in Rodney's eyes as he stares at the thin trickle of blood on the back of his hand, sees the strange, stiff way he holds himself after she leaves, sees how Rodney jumps when he speaks, and then tries to hide it, pulling up the blanket and fidgeting with the edge.
"How are you feeling?" It's a stupid question, it's an unbelievably stupid question. But he has to say something, and watching Rodney, every second makes his chest tighten a little more.
"I— better," Rodney says, looking away, mouth pressed thin. And then: "thanks..." and nothing else. Then it's awkward, and it's never been awkward, strange and amusing and sometimes infuriating but never awkward, because Rodney doesn't censor himself or think before speaking, and those are necessary ingredients in awkward.
After that, the days feel stretched and strange, so that some days will drag on to infinity and others, John wakes up and realises two days have swept past like the wind. He sees Rodney every day while he's still stuck in bed, but a solid week passes and they've hardly spoken. He's hardly ever alone when he visits, usually running into Teyla or Ronon, sometimes Lorne, who sits between Rodney's bed and Zelenka's, reading a book. Sometimes Cadman's there, annoying the crap out of Rodney with gossip.
John still makes a point of checking every day, anyway, and refuses to think about why he's doing it.
Keller releases Rodney on the fourth day after Ava because she has no more excuse to keep him, and makes it clear that if she had her way he wouldn't be up and about. But Rodney's being an intense pain in the ass and he dresses and leaves without even gloating, only to come back two hours later with his laptop and settle in next to Zelenka's bed. When he wakes up, two days after Rodney, Rodney mutters something like "glad you're all right," and runs away like something's chasing him.
He proceeds to spend the next four days hiding in his quarters. He doesn't always answer the door when John comes to see him, and when he does, he makes excuses. "I'm busy," or "I'm tired," or "don't you have someone else to bother?" John has to accept that; he doesn't have much choice. The team's grounded and relieved for two weeks straight-up, standard procedure, and after Rodney's cleared to go back to the lab he functions on a set circuit of quarters, lab, mess, quarters, repeat, an almost automatic routine.
Maybe at first, nobody realises the extent of it. Maybe because the only person who gets enough contact with Rodney is Zelenka, and it's sixteen days after Ava before he's released even for light duty — which means sitting in a wheelchair and complaining about things for four hours a day, at least as far as John can tell when he drops by to check in. Rodney sits at his workstation and doesn't even participate in squabbles, letting Radek field them for the most part, which is odd, but not exactly alarming.
At first, nobody notices that Rodney's jumpier than usual, because Rodney's always jumpy, or that he's a little more irritable than they've all come to expect — Rodney is usually both of those things, and they're par for the course. In any case Rodney's going to such lengths to avoid talking to people that it's hard to get an accurate sampling.
It's that Rodney's so quiet that finally gets to John. It's brought to John's attention, the second day of Zelenka's return to the lab, that Rodney hasn't made any subordinates cry in the two weeks he's been back. John receives this troubling information in an e-mail from Zelenka, the first sign of many that he's not the only one worried. The second sign comes from Carter.
In the few months she's been in the city, he's actually come to like Carter. At first he was wary, even vaguely antagonistic, because she's both practiced and skilled at verbally sparring with Rodney and both of them seem to get such enjoyment out of it. At first, that inspired something uncomfortably like jealousy, especially after spending almost four years listening to Rodney talk about how awesome Samantha Carter is. He's over hating her now, and has decided that it was just tradition; new COs get a hard time. It's nature, even if she's only marginally the CO.
He catches her checking in on Rodney four times while he's still in the infirmary and five times after that, discreetly hovering at the door of the lab or casually passing by Rodney's quarters or, once, watching him from across the mess hall while she eats lunch with Lorne and Keller and a couple of scientists. If half of what John's read about Sam Carter is true, she's probably been doing it as much as he has and just not been caught. He probably only noticed because he's been doing the same thing.
He says nothing about it until they actually collide between Rodney's quarters and the transporter during the third week after the incident. They both try to temporize excuses, John having an easier time of it because at least his quarters are somewhere in the general vicinity, but finally she shuts her mouth, frowns, and turns back toward the transporter. "Come on, Sheppard," she says, and it's not an order, but she sounds tired so he goes anyway.
Back in her office, Carter looks almost as bad as Rodney, exhausted and pale. She's nowhere near as diplomatic as Elizabeth was, and while the difference took some getting used to it's something John can respect. "He's not getting better," she says, and she folds her hands together on the top of her desk. Carter doesn't talk with her hands, though John always gets the strange feeling that she wants to and someone told her it was unseemly.
John studies her. She's studying him back, with that careful, watchful way Carter has that can be kind of intense. It reminds him of Rodney (as everything seems to these days), who John always thought watched people (when he can be bothered to pay them any mind at all, which isn't often) so carefully because he's no good at reading them by instinct.
"He says he's fine," shrugs John, though it sounds just as stupid as it did when Rodney spat it at him, the last time they spoke. They haven't talked much since Ava, and when they do Rodney usually ends up sniping at him. It's like the first year, all over again.
Carter seems to disagree with this assessment, because her eyebrows draw together and she presses her lips thin. "Has he talked to you?"
John drops his eyes to his lap and fidgets with the edge of his wristband. "Not about that," he admits. "Have people been complaining?"
"No." She almost sounds as if she wishes they had. She pinches the bridge of her nose as if to stave off a headache. "Can I be honest with you?"
He shrugs again. "Any time."
She sighs, still gently rubbing her forehead. "I know everybody's still getting used to me, and I understand that - you don't know me. And you're all so close-knit. It can be kind of intimidating."
There's not much John can say to that. It's true, and while they're getting used to her, it's going to take time.
"So I don't blame you all for... the only way I can describe it is... 'closing ranks'?"
John doesn't grin, but it's a battle. She looks positively downcast, at least as close as a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force is allowed to get. "I understand that," she repeats. "I do. But Rodney... we aren't exactly friends, but he used to be..."
"Kind of a jackass?" John drawls, wishing he didn't find her discomfort so amusing, but it's been a long three weeks.
"Well." Yes, she doesn't say, but there's amused exasperation on her face, like this is familiar ground, and John sort of smiles despite himself. "I'm saying, I understand I'm nobody's best friend yet, but I think I'm entitled to be worried about him. After all, I've known him longer than any of you."
She doesn't mean it as a challenge, so John does nothing at all about the spike of - definite, recognisable - jealousy that makes his spine stiffen for a second. It's not like Rodney wasn't telling everyone that for the first month she was here. It's not like he didn't name a whale after her. "It's been a few years," he says. "He's changed a lot."
"I know that," she replies, and there's a hint of a smile there. "But I'm still worried about him. And you know why."
Of course he knows why. Everyone in the armed forces gets the Possible Fallout of Trauma talk and the SGC has its own special version complete with appendices on space vampires, sex pollen, and possession by parasitic brain snakes. He's been there before, and he's pretty sure she has. Hell, most of Atlantis has been there. It's why they keep sending them new psychiatrists, though they haven't had any new personnel in that department since Kate died, and nobody likes the acting head, not even John, who's usually pretty good at sidestepping therapists he doesn't like. He's willing to bet it's top of Carter's list, though.
"I thought you talked to him," John says. He knows she did, because Rodney complained about it, because it's something Elizabeth used to do after really bad missions and debriefings that took place in the infirmary, and he's not exactly sorry Carter decided to keep that habit when she took over. She's actually, ironically, easier to talk to than Elizabeth was. Elizabeth always seemed like she was trying to make you feel comfortable, which only worked when it really worked, and the rest of the time just made you feel like you were supposed to be reading lines. Or writing them. I will not challenge the civilian authority or maybe I am not really all that funny.
Still, right at this moment John finds himself missing Elizabeth. She would have made Rodney talk about it whether he liked it or not.
"I talked. He didn't talk back much, which was the first sign," she explains, frowning. "It was kind of spooky, actually. He hasn't been condescending or rude in almost a month, and god that sounds like such a horrible thing to clue me in, but... "
He waits politely for Carter to gather her thoughts.
"Doctor Spinnett says he just sits there," she says, finally, looking helpless. "Look, I can't let him go back out in the field like this. I just can't. I think we both know where this is heading, but if he won't deal with it, he'll make mistakes... and when it does happen, it'll just be worse."
And the thing is, John does know where it's heading. So he lets Carter ground them for another week.
It gets where it's heading, or at least a little closer, four days after his talk with Carter, when there's a small fire in the physics lab. It's not serious, the kind of thing he doesn't hear about until the daily report crosses his desk the next day; happens all the time, messing around with ten thousand year old machines without much frame of reference. But then Zelenka comes vibrating into John's office, looking both furious and terrified as well as weary, checking over his shoulder and shutting the door behind him before John can even greet him.
"I came to tell you this," he explains, fingers clenched on his knees where he sits in John's uncomfortable spare chair, "because he will deny it, but you must know."
"Know what, Radek?"
Radek squeezes his eyes shut, mutters something in Czech, and then opens them again, wide and earnest and genuinely worried. "He made a mistake, Colonel Sheppard," he says, in a low, careful voice. "And I think he has been making them for days. He complains that he cannot concentrate, and then he sits in the corner and he does not shout, or berate, or pester us, and now..." he tangles the fingers of one hand in his hair, looking bereft. "I was afraid of what it eventually was - I finally check his calculations, thinking surely I must be wrong... but I am not wrong."
John stares at him, trying not to look forbidding, but his hands are clenched on the edge of his desk and the knuckles are white. "You're sure?"
Radek nods. "As sure as I may be. I would have run my results past another in the department but..." he shrugs, meaningfully. "It is enough of a betrayal that I have done what I have done, myself, without involving others who might be less..."
"I get it," says John, and stands. "Thanks for bringing this to my attention."
Radek stops him as he heads for the door, and when John turns back with an impatient sigh, the other man jumps, cringes, and John feels guilty. He's about to apologise, for some reason, but the scientist just shakes his head, tiredly. "It is nothing," he says. "It is... to be expected. But that is why I'm concerned. I know that he is afraid," Radek pauses, and then carries on in a rush: "because it is how it comes, afterward, and we can all see it, but he will not listen. He is..."
Radek presses his lips together, frowning. "It is worse for him. And I can hardly imagine it, but he is always watching, always afraid, and he will not discuss it." He looks pale. "He will not speak to me. Perhaps it was foolish to try."
John considers, and then carefully pats Radek on the shoulder; this time he doesn't jump. "Maybe foolish," John admits, "but what else is there?"
Radek shrugs. "I must... I must return to work now. Rodney is... he is probably sulking in his quarters, and one of us must be working."
"Thanks," John says, again, and watches Radek get five steps down the hall before turning back.
"If you would... I think it would be better if Rodney did not know we have spoken of this," he says. John notices for the first time that the other man isn't wearing his new glasses, that this whole time he's been clutching them in his left hand. It makes him look different, both older and thinner, and John feels the tension in his neck sharper than he did a moment ago.
Radek's wearing distant pain in the lines of his face, and John remembers with a flash of discomfort the long line of stitches crossing under the other man's ribs, nearly healed after nearly a month, but still healing. They can speed the mending of soft tissue, but trauma is still trauma, and Radek still moves carefully, like he doesn't quite trust the integrity of his skin.
Somehow stitches always seem worse to John than the jagged tear of a wound, maybe because by the time it's over, sewn up pale pink and tidy, it means you've brought the madness of the moment back into the orderly world with you. At least when you're bleeding you can blame the lingering panic on the fact that you're bleeding, that the world's been temporarily knocked off its axis, that this is not how things are supposed to be. Instead, stitches are an uncomfortable reminder that the two moments are not so separate, after all.
That at any moment the fragile peace of ordinary life can be ripped open, contents spilling out, just like skin.
John shakes his head against the wave of nausea, jabs his thumb hard into the inside of his wrist until it passes. Rodney probably is sulking in his quarters. He won't talk to anyone. He's not making his staff miserable. This is coming across worse than they thought.
"My lips are sealed," is all he says.
Right on Zelenka's heels come the rest of his team, minus Rodney - Teyla and Ronon, appearing at his door, looking out of place against its sparseness. He never used to use his office, but they've been grounded for a month and at some point he has to pretend to do some real work. Teyla looks at ease, leaning casually against the doorframe, while Ronon, as ever, looks his personal blend of uneasy and challenging.
"Food?" asks Ronon, and John smiles his relief, fleeting but felt.
"Yeah," he agrees, pushing away from his desk.
Teyla's the one to ask, as they're heading for the transporter, the corridor deserted. "Doctor Zelenka came to see you."
John's never known anyone but Teyla who can put so much meaning behind such innocuous words. Because under the question-that-isn't-a-question are the words we are worried about Rodney and something dangerous happened today and we are worried about you, too, John. But aloud, she waits, watching him patiently.
"Yeah," he admits eventually, trying to keep to Ronon's longer stride in a way that Teyla manages effortlessly. "You heard about what happened in the lab?"
There's an uncomfortable silence, the kind that makes the hair on the back of his neck prickle with irritation. "What?"
Ronon and Teyla share a look, the one John associates with moments where culturally, they don't quite match up, but with a twist to the grim side.
"It's all over the city," Ronon tells him in a rumble, a tone that says he's more than willing to visit some retribution on spreaders of gossip wherever he may find them. "That McKay screwed something up and just about burned down the lab."
John's defensive before he can catch himself: "It wasn't that bad," he protests. "It was..." he sighs. "It was just a fire. The kind they have all the time. But it was... I think it was his fault. And Zelenka says..."
This could feel odd, like betrayal of trust, like telling secrets, but it feels like a team moment, the kind that means they've got a claim on Rodney, too, just like John does. He can't talk about it to anyone else, that's for damn sure, and they've been together long enough that most of what's said isn't said aloud.
"Are you well, John?" Teyla asks, when he's finished telling them what Zelenka said. He looks at her in some surprise, because it's a non sequitur and it leaves him wrong-footed for a second.
"I - yeah," he tells her. "Why wouldn't I be?"
She shares another look with Ronon, this one of the ordinary Earthlings-are-weird variety, and he tries not to scowl with purely childish annoyance.
"You are," Teyla says, delicately, "often rather short-sighted when it comes to your own well-being, John."
You think everything is your fault.
And that's true enough, but if there's one thing he doesn't want to think about right now, it's how tied up he feels to Rodney's peace of mind, how he wishes he weren't. But it's not like he's obsessed or anything, except for the stalking. Okay, maybe he's a little obsessed. But it's his job, and hey, Rodney's his friend. It's what friends do, right? They obsess.
"I can't do much about it," he says, feeling vaguely petulant, but Ronon merely shrugs.
"Won't be much longer."
And John shuts his mouth again, sees the real, baffling sympathy in their eyes, and shakes his head. "No. I don't think so."
"You should be there," says Ronon, almost gently.
For a second, it's free of context again and John's not sure what Ronon means, so he glances at the other man's face - but it's hard to read, except for the open sincerity, something expectant. No specifics. He gets the passing, lunatic idea that they're watching him like he's watching Rodney.
John's not an idiot, though, even though he looks away again, watching his feet as he walks. It's on both their faces: You should be there with Rodney, or you should be there when he breaks. It's both embarrassing and flattering that they think he's the best man for the job, because he wants to be, despite himself. We can see right through you.
"He won't talk to me." And John can't stop the hitch in his voice, even if it's gone quickly.
"Nor to us," agrees Teyla. That makes John look up again, not in surprise, because of course they've tried - they're better at this sort of thing than he is - but all he finds in Teyla's face is gentle worry. "He seems to resent the intrusion."
Ronon snorts. "Never was as smart as he thinks he is," he says easily, as they reach the transporter and the doors whoosh open for them. Neither John nor Teyla answer, but there's no question of the silent agreement between them as the doors close.
Not long now.
"This isn't really working," muttered Rodney, dropping his arms to his sides.
Beside him, John sighed, quietly, and opened his eyes. "That's because you're doing it wrong," he said, casting a critical eye over Rodney's body, and Rodney felt himself flush. Lucky he was already flushed deep pink from the heat and the impending sunburn, or this could have been embarrassing.
"I'm doing what you're doing," he griped, crossing his arms and glaring.
John studied him through half-closed eyes, a look that was undoubtedly studying and not just observing, and then reached out for Rodney's arms. Rodney barely started, and found himself once again distantly astonished at the fact that it no longer surprised him when John touched him. It shouldn't have — John had always touched him, more than anyone else, anyway, and under torture he might have admitted that he liked that. Liked there being someone who thought nothing of it, like it was normal.
Generally Rodney had always found it safest not to think about it too much. It wasn't the kind of thing you brought up over cards. At least, it wasn't the kind of thing Rodney brought up over cards. Or John. Besides, I want somebody to touch me seemed to come with implications that precluded just how complicated the desire really was. Because it wasn't about sex.
Okay, it was a little about sex. But not entirely. It was much more basic than that, much more simplistic, much harder to express. And so he didn't. Hadn't, when he'd noticed the touching, almost carelessly bestowed. He'd just noted it, been grateful, and moved on.
So he made himself be still and pliant as John uncrossed his arms, tugged at his wrists until they hung loosely at his sides, even patiently uncurled his hands. It was hard to stay still, because this was different, now that he was paying attention, and he'd been paying a lot more of it to John over the last several weeks. He hated to admit it, but John Sheppard had become his point of stability, and John seemed equally, annoyingly set on keeping a constant eye on Rodney, too.
But it was, he was finding, a lot harder not to think about how he liked John touching him while John was actually touching him, and not by accident or out of habit, either, but with intention. He didn't think it was the heat, the mugginess of the air, that put heaviness in his muscles. He didn't think it was the temperature that made John move like that, languid and slow and focused. It was something else. But it was something so foggy that Rodney couldn't quite grasp it; could only let John move his hands, nudge his ankles apart with one bare foot, then step back, cocking his head slightly to one side.
"Try it again."
Rodney gulped — when had his mouth gone so dry? — and tried it again. And okay, he had been doing it wrong, and he got three moves in, clumsily but better, before he lost his footing again, muttering a curse as John reached out to catch his elbow.
"Uncle Mer!" He turned his head to see Madison frowning disapprovingly at him from under an enormous straw hat. She had been watching them for the past half-hour, and he'd seen her come outside but promptly forgotten about her presence until now. She was sitting on the top step of the back porch, elbows on knees and chin in her hands, her bare toes pointing at each other. The hat was so huge it shaded her bare shoulders, even her knees where they stuck out under the pale green sundress.
"What?" he demanded, wearily.
Madison's mouth drew up into the annoyed little twist Jeannie wore when she was lecturing him about something. "Daddy says swear words mean you have a limited vocabulary."
English majors, Rodney thought, with some violence.
"Yes, well, your Daddy may not know this, but sometimes swear words mean there aren't any other words to describe something," he shot back. "Lucky for you, you've never been in that situation."
"Hmph," Madison replied, clearly unconvinced.
"Look, be quiet, okay? You're breaking my concentration."
"Uncle John said you're doing it wrong," Madison pointed out, reasonably. "If you knew how to do it right you wouldn't have to concentrate so hard."
Rodney levelled on his niece one of his best glares, one of the top five, one that usually sent minions scattering like dandelion fluff. But Madison remained unmoved. In fact, she didn't even look impressed.
It never worked on Jeannie, either. Damnit.
Instead, he turned back to John, who was smiling his I-shouldn't-laugh-at-this-but-I-really-want-to smile. "Well?" Rodney demanded.
The smile softened, and John shrugged. "Okay, here."
Rodney was only a little surprised when this time, John arranged himself at his back, placing his hands on Rodney's shoulders. They felt cool.
"What are you doing?" he asked, with only a hint of a stutter.
"Look," came John's voice from right next to his left ear, "you think too much about this stuff. And this isn't thinking, it's muscle memory. It's your body thinking it's in danger and reacting even though you know better. Right?"
"So we'll just teach your muscles, and you try to stop thinking for a second."
He sounded calm, patient, annoyingly untouched by just how much blood had just rushed into Rodney's face. His hands were gently circling Rodney's wrists, arms and chest flush with Rodney's shoulder blades.
"Rodney," he said, and Rodney felt one stubbled cheek pressed briefly against his neck as John told him, still calmly: "Relax. Close your eyes."
He did. "Okay," he said, forcing a deep, deep breath and letting it out slowly, because after a moment it felt like John's languid focus had soaked into him through osmosis. "Now what?"
John just started moving.
Bow stance and Rodney's arms were lifting, sweeping slowly left, and then step back, and John hooked a foot around his ankle and he was stepping, all his weight on his right foot. Step and push, and they were halfway through the first form before Rodney realised John was whispering each move as they made it, half to himself.
They went through it three times until finally Rodney was moving on his own, more sure in the motions now, but John still moved with him, no longer guiding, just following, close in case he faltered. He was caught up in it now, both of them were, and by the time John stopped, he could feel how still he'd gone, inside and out. He felt a little light-headed when John stepped back, but the calm remained. He dropped his arms.
"Okay, so you were right," he said, and was that a squeak he'd just made? Of course not. He swallowed before daring to speak again. "That's... muscle memory, huh?"
He was balanced on this bizarre precipice between the leaden calm of his body and the rapid thrum of something wholly imaginary, deep in his chest. He was a little worried about which way he'd tip if he turned around and actually looked John in the face. A little fascinated by the prospect, actually, but a lot more scared shitless.
Madison came to his rescue, breaking the spell. She hopped down onto the grass and stood at the foot of the steps, hands on her hips. "Can I try?" she asked.
Rodney actually felt John grin, and tried not to roll his eyes. Madison liked John better than him. It was a switch, because usually it was Rodney kids wouldn't leave alone, but John got along with them better. Probably because he thinks at about the same level, Rodney thought, not bitterly at all.
Still, it was at his side that Madison came to stand, glancing up at Rodney as John said "If your Uncle Mer doesn't mind." Rodney looked down at her. She was pouting. Okay, that was just unfair. Not like he was going to say no, anyway, but come on.
"Yes, fine," he said, impatiently, and watched as she took off her hat and threw it Frisbee-like in the direction porch steps.
"Don't you need that?" he asked. "You don't want to burn." Madison was even paler than he was, which was saying something. But she just shook her head.
"I'm wearing the smelly sunscreen," she said, holding up her arm for him to sniff, but he didn't have to. He got a strong whiff of coconut from where he was.
He shrugged, and now shot a glance at John, who was wearing his I-shouldn't-smile smile again as he got himself back into position, to Rodney's left and a little ahead, where Madison could see him.
This time when they started again, John didn't speak, just moved slowly, every so often glancing over at Madison to see how she was doing. Madison, though, was watching Rodney, eyes wide and serious and her movements slow and deliberate. Rodney tried to be annoyed when Madison had it down pat after four repetitions, but mostly he was just pleased, because see? She didn't always like John better. Also, his niece? A genius.
Rodney was sweating by now, and he was just about to suggest they take a break when a towel hit him in the side of the head. He snatched it out of the air and spun to face Jeannie, who was standing on the porch with her arms crossed, barefoot like they were. It had been too hot for shoes for two days, after the temperature shot up past thirty-six degrees Celsius, and take that, detractors of climate change.
But he paused when he caught sight of the look on her face - it didn't last long, but it was far too much like worry, like fear, like tenderness - and for a second he felt stripped utterly bare like uninsulated wire, shaking as he mopped the sweat from his forehead and the back of his neck. She was going to say something. She was going to ask him something, and he wasn't ready.
But she turned to John, instead, the strange look vanishing. "I've made some iced tea," she said, tilting her head in invitation. "Help me bring it out?"
Rodney wanted to say something then, he wasn't sure what, something sparked by the fact that John glanced at him before answering, eyes dark and unfathomable, but all he said, as John brushed past him and climbed the steps, was: "Iced tea? You're sure it's—"
"It's raspberry, Meredith. I made it myself. Who do you think you're talking to?" Jeannie's scorn was somehow bracing, and he shut his mouth as John and Jeannie disappeared into the cooler dimness of the house. He was unable to remember why he'd been so tense, only a moment before.
Then Madison was tugging on his shirt. "Uncle Mer?"
He looked down at her. "What?"
"It's hot." She was pouting.
"Yes, I know. Well spotted," he replied.
"Uncle Mer." Her tone was impatient, like he was the stupid one.
She pointed across the patchy brown lawn to the shed, sitting quietly in the shade of the huge oak tree on the far side of the yard. "I have three Super Soakers." Madison grinned. It was an evil grin.
"Oh." Rodney grinned back, patted her on the head. "You are my favourite niece ever," he told her, and she giggled.
Through the kitchen window, John could see over the roofs of the houses to where a massive billboard advertising home insurance presided over the rushing cars of the highway. It was at least four streets away, but staring at it gave him a strange sense of cultural dissonance.
One thing that jarred John every time he returned to Earth was the words everywhere. They complained about the Ancients' penchant for building incredibly dangerous things and neglecting to label them, but the truth was that it marked a gaping divide between Pegasus and Earth.
On Earth, everything was explained, lines drawn, purposes defined. Labels on everything, even things whose simplicity seemed to preclude them, like doors and microwave dinners and bags of chips that felt compelled to explain how they should be opened. The soap dispenser in Jeannie's guest bathroom had the word "PUSH" embossed in tiny letters on the pump.
He'd grown used to having to intuit such things, and having everything spelled out for him in such excruciating detail made him feel coddled and unnecessary. But it wasn't just him, he'd come to realise. Only a world secure in its ongoing existence could possibly justify the time it took to write "PUSH" and "ON" and "OPEN" on everything it made, not to mention spending millions of dollars and thousands of hours making movies and television and advertising household cleaning products. In Pegasus, ultimately, you were on your own, and whatever security you had, you made for yourself and defended it, too.
It came to something just that simple; Earth was safe, or thought it was. Atlantis was not.
Atlantis was home.
It came to him with such overwhelming force that he swayed a little. Sometimes it did that. Usually he was too busy trying to avoid getting shot to notice. In Jeannie's cool, clean-scrubbed kitchen, it was like a bloodcurdling scream in a chapel.
It seemed to have no effect on Jeannie, though, as she bustled around taking down glasses from the counter, pouring jars of sun-brewed tea into a huge blue glass pitcher she asked John to get down from the top shelf.
"Hand me the ice container, will you?" she asked, and John opened the freezer, basking for a minute in the blast of freezing cold. He helped her pour ice cubes into the pitcher of tea, watched Jeannie stir it with a battered wooden spoon.
"So is this some kind of therapy?" she asked with deceptive airiness, tapping the spoon on the rim of the pitcher and then putting it in the sink.
"Some -" John was puzzled for a second, until she pointed to the screen door, through which they could see Rodney and Madison walking across the parched grass, towards the shade at the back of the yard. But John knew what she meant almost at once.
"Oh. Sort of," he admitted.
"I thought so," Jeannie nodded. "But it's not the first time he's done this stuff, is it?"
"What do you mean?" Jeannie looked perplexed, like someone who'd just sat down and found the chair missing.
She gestured again, vaguely in the direction of the yard. "It's Tai Chi, isn't it?"
John shrugged. "Something like." Something like that, and a little Satedan hand-fighting, and a lot of Teyla's meditation techniques, but close enough. What mattered was that it worked, and it worked for John.
"It's funny," said Jeannie, taking a bowl of raspberries to the sink and rinsing them, then dropping them, one by one, tea. "I would have expected it to look silly, for Mer to look silly, but he doesn't. Kind of clumsy, because it's Mer, but not silly. And I realised... he'd done it before. He's been learning this stuff, hasn't he?"
John knew the look in her eyes, because it was the same one he'd seen in Rodney's the first time he'd fired a gun at another person, the first gut-deep comprehension that kill or be killed wasn't just a philosophical exercise. Granted, that person had been a Wraith about to suck the life from John's chest, but the mix of holy shit and oh god, this is real, isn't it? was a unique one.
"Yeah," John told her. "For a while now." He looked down at his hands, pale against the warm grain of the butcher-block countertop on the kitchen island. "He's had to." A hard thing to admit, because no matter how many times they had it proven that it was necessary, Rodney having to shoot people and fight people and get hurt and hurt others still made John feel like he'd failed, somewhere. Like it shouldn't be, but the world wasn't fair.
Jeannie offered the bowl of berries to him, and he popped one into his mouth, as Jeannie set it down and stared, miserably, out the back door. "It took me a year and getting kidnapped and almost... almost dying to realise that he's really doing something dangerous," she said, softly, and John had a moment of panic where he thought she might cry, but she didn't, just shook herself and carried the bowl back to the fridge. When she shut it, she turned back and stared at him, eyebrows drawn together.
"What I asked you before... about what happened to him. It happened to you, too, didn't it?"
He'd been expecting it, and so it hit him no harder than a little dizziness, and he nodded, slowly. "Some of it."
"How close..." her voice was small, and John stayed where he was, because she was clutching the handle of the refrigerator behind her back and John knew better than to meddle with other people's methods of steadying themselves. "...how close did he come?"
He didn't look away. He was pretty proud of himself, even if a hint of cold sweat was springing up on the back of his neck. "Pretty close." He held up his thumb and index finger, a hair's-breadth apart. "This close."
It was Jeannie who looked away, shutting her eyes, leaning her head back against the stainless steel fridge door. "He's getting better, though, isn't he?"
And just like that, John relaxed, at least, enough, running a trembling hand through his hair. "Yeah," he said, quietly. "He is."
She sighed, coming back to the counter. "I shouldn't have asked you what I asked you," she said, sounding penitent, meaning before.
"It's okay," he said, and meant it. There ensued a few seconds of not-uncomfortable silence, and then Jeannie slapped her palm down on the countertop.
"Sounds like a great idea," he agreed, and she started bringing down bread and told him to rummage in the fridge for ingredients. As they were buttering brown bread, he glanced out at the yard, saw Madison dragging the end of the hose across the lawn, and then looked back.
"Can I ask you a question? And you can tell me to shut up if you want."
Jeannie shrugged. "I think I owe you one."
John started layering sliced tofurkey onto a piece of bread. "What was he like growing up? With your parents, I mean." He reached for the mayonnaise, and started lathering it onto the other slice. "It seems to be kind of a... sensitive topic." Which was a mild way of putting it, but they were Jeannie's parents, too, so he figured delicacy was called for.
She didn't look up, but she didn't snap at him, either, so he just waited. Eventually, she said: "If you'd asked me that five or six years ago, I'd have told you he was the problem - Mer always thought he knew better than everybody, including our parents. But now?" She went still, scraping excess mustard from the butter knife in her hand on the rim of the jar, and looked up at him with uncertainty.
"I mean, he was always pretty lofty about how smart he was. That's just Mer. But the truth is, he didn't start to get so overbearing about it until I was about six. That was about the time they diagnosed my epilepsy. There was a year where I was in and out of hospitals, and I remember Mer just... changed. I didn't understand it at the time, I just knew that when I was well again, there were all these problems between my brother and my parents. When I got older I just thought it was that he was older than I was, it was something people went through with their parents, but he went to school not long after that, and we never talked about Mer when he wasn't home."
John thought about that, wondered if maybe Rodney's hypochondria hadn't started around the same time.
Jeannie shrugged. "I just always got along with them better. I never thought about it much until they died, and there were some conversations..."
Jeannie shrugged again, now looking slightly uncomfortable but trying not to show it. "We had this aunt - she was a nurse, took care of me a lot when there was nobody else to babysit, especially after Mer left. Mer missed Dad's wake, some idiotic neighbour noticed, said something nasty... and Aunt Caroline went off on this tear about how it wasn't like our parents had ever made Mer feel all that welcome. She was really angry. And Dad was her brother."
Jeannie began to arrange the sandwiches on a platter she pulled out from under the counter, setting them at straight lines with the edges, discomfort showing in enforced order. "It just hadn't ever occurred to me that whatever went wrong between them hadn't been Mer's fault. Because it's the kind of thing he does, you know?"
"I know," said John, smiling a little.
"I don't know if I'll ever know for sure. I was too young, and it was so long ago. But I think..." Finally she looked up, frowning, unhappy. "I think maybe he felt like they didn't want him."
She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand, John realising only belatedly that she was crying, now, and how sneaky was that? But she just reached for the tea-towel and dabbed at her face and was fine again.
"He used to say things like that, but I always thought he was being dramatic, you know, blaming it on someone else. And I just never believed it could be true, until then. I mean, he's a pain in the ass, sure, but he's still Meredith. You can't help but..."
She trailed off, suddenly looking at him with pointed expectation, and John found himself, this time, undeniably blushing. He was forced to sublimate it by viciously cutting his sandwich into crooked halves, avoiding Jeannie Miller's gaze at all costs.
A second later he heard her sigh, and then she was next to him, pulling him down to place a kiss on the top of his head like he was a little boy, which of course only made him blush harder.
"Fine," she said resignedly, when he dared to look her in the face again. "But I'm glad he's got you."
"Thanks," he murmured, and cleared his throat. "So. Lunch?"
She picked up the tray with the iced tea and the glasses, leaving John to bring the sandwiches. They took them out to the table on the porch, and then Jeannie straightened, looking around. John looked, too. The yard seemed to be deserted.
"Maddie? Mer?" she called, and that was when she made the mistake of venturing out onto the lawn.
There was a rustling from the bushes under the porch. That was all the warning they got, before Madison and Rodney burst from cover, huge bright green plastic water guns already firing.
Jeannie shrieked, and Rodney sprayed John right in the face, taunting him from the foot of the steps. "What's the matter?" he jeered, spraying John again, in the chest. "Scared?"
"Okay, that's it," John told him, and tackled him from the top step. He'd wrestled the water gun away from him in a second, but Rodney was already diving for the bushes and producing another, bigger one, this one with spinning barrels and holy shit, where had they gotten the ice cubes without him and Jeannie seeing them? And proceeded to soak John from head to foot, all the while laughing maniacally and dodging John's pathetic attempts to return fire.
Then Jeannie came running across the yard with the garden hose and a vengeful grin, and it was on.
John finds out later that Zelenka's confession was preceded by a screaming match to end all screaming matches; he knows Zelenka didn't tell Rodney about checking his work, but he couldn't imagine the Czech letting it lie in the heat of the moment. The gossip-mill version, as John gets it, goes something like this:
McKay: "What happened? What the hell happened? What is wrong with you people? Can I not go away for a week without you courting the destruction of the planet?"
This was followed by almost grateful silence, something like relief, because it was the first time Rodney had raised his voice in days. But as the seconds ticked past, it was Zelenka who spoke up:
Zelenka: "It was not our fault! You were the one calculating the energy input!"
McKay: "Then you entered it wrong! Honestly, can you even read? "
Zelenka: "I double-checked my input as I always do! The information was incorrect! Why can you not admit that you are wrong?"
Reports after that point varied, blurred together (and to be honest most of the main fight could have been taken piece-meal from any of their other arguments except for volume) but one description, specifically from Cadman who'd been supervising a delivery of equipment from another part of the city, said that instead of firing back in full voice Rodney had turned and walked out of the lab without a backwards glance, taking not even his laptop.
"They all looked pretty freaked out, sir," Cadman tells him later. This conversation is as private as the one with Zelenka, and she's come to his office at the end of the shift looking nervous and unhappy. "The look on Zelenka's face was... well, the look on McKay's was worse. He was all sweaty and I almost thought..." here, she hesitates, looking unsure.
John waits; he knows Rodney and Cadman have been friends, or at least friendly, since shortly after the body-sharing incident. Cadman took it upon herself to make Rodney be more social; that all it got her was new status as "worthy of mockery" in Rodney's eyes is a statement to something, but John isn't sure what.
"Sir, I wouldn't tell this to anyone else, I swear — McKay brings a lot down on himself anyway, and he doesn't need any more, but — but you two are..." there's a significant pause, "...are friends, and I thought someone should know."
It's a weirdly significant pause, and John absolutely does not blush. But for a second, and the reasons, at the time, escape him completely, his face feels hot. He keeps his expression neutral and tilts his head at Cadman.
"Come on, Lieutenant."
Cadman frowns. "He looked like he might cry, sir." She doesn't look uncomfortable — Cadman never does, didn't even after spending all that time in Rodney's head. And she certainly doesn't get embarrassed. What she does look is worried, genuinely worried, and John feels an answering spike of tight-knotted sympathy as he nods, and tries not to knead too obviously at the place under his left temple where the headache is starting.
In the end, it's the fire and the fight — which however well anyone knows the people involved, was at least louder and more disruptive than any previous fight — that generates real complaints, generates reports. Which is something, because after almost four years in the Pegasus Galaxy only new personnel still fill out reports on interpersonal disputes. The general feeling is that that sort of thing is Atlantis business, and none of the business of the SGC, even if they would understand — which, the general feeling also suggests, they wouldn't.
He gets another several worried e-mails from members of the science division, including one from Katie Brown, which is as brusque and polite as she ever is with him (he's not sure what he did to earn the disdain of a mousy botanist, but he's never cared enough to find out). It's about time for personnel evaluations and Rodney hasn't been meeting with his department heads like he's supposed to. Most of them have been too intimidated to push the matter, but for someone who coddles flowers for a living Dr. Brown's pretty stubborn.
Her e-mail explains she found Rodney dozing at his never-used desk, startled awake by her arrival, and that he made an excuse before hurrying out, tablet clutched possessively to his chest. The e-mail doesn't use that many adjectives, but John can picture it anyway. She says she's worried.
She's not the only one.
He accosts Rodney in the mess line at lunchtime, making sure the other man sees him coming, guides him none-too-gently out of earshot of the general populace. When they're sitting at a table in the corner nearest the exit, he broaches the question he spent most of his morning trying to frame.
"I hear you had a fight with Zelenka."
It's not his best work. He can admit that. But Rodney reacts more strongly than he expected, going pale and defensive. "It's... we have fights all the time."
"Not like that one, from what I've been hearing."
Rodney's eyes narrow. "What, are you spying on me now?"
John's surprised by the defensive tone, the suspicion, and he apparently shows it, because Rodney digs in; Rodney McKay can smell weakness.
"What's with the sudden curiosity? You never cared about the day-to-day in the science division before, so why start now?"
It's said bitingly, the leave me alone tone that most people translate as prickliness too sharp to sympathise with, but John's used to it. He says firmly: "The day-to-day in the lab doesn't generally involve things bursting into flame," meaning: You can scare off everybody else like that, but not me.
"It was just an electrical fire," Rodney says, dismissively, but there's an edge of panic to it.
"Rodney," he murmurs, "It was an overload. There was a calculation error."
Rodney scowls. "So you have been spying on me." But John catches the flash, sees that big brain searching, reaching, and not finding. And then it hits him.
"Jesus, Rodney," he breathes, leaning forward and pitching his voice low with concern, "you don't remember, do you?"
"Of course I..." but Rodney's voice his high and thin, a warning to back off. John's not backing off.
"You don't remember," John repeats. "How much? The fire? The argument? How much of it did you lose?" He knows he's letting his own fear creep into his voice but he can't stop it. He needs to know.
Rodney's white-faced, swallowing hard, eyes darting left and right, for an escape route or to see if anyone's watching, John can't tell. Finally he lets out a shallow breath, and whispers: "The whole morning." He squeezes his eyes shut, rubs at the bridge of his nose like he can force his memory back into order with his fingertips. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he says then, barely above a whisper.
"You had a blackout," John tells him tensely. "Do you even know what that means?"
"I'm not talking about this," Rodney snaps, and he looks slightly ill, pushing his tray away from him. "I need — I have to go."
And just like that, he's gone, a whirlwind of nervous energy striding from the mess. John sits staring at Rodney's abandoned tray for several minutes, wrestling with himself, before finally he pushes himself up and returns to his office.
The e-mail he sends Keller is four lines long, uncouched in delicacy, and leaves him feeling hollow and guilty, like he's betrayed Rodney's trust, except that he had to wring the confession out of him.
A few hours pass.
And then Keller is calling John to her office and staring at him across her own desk looking worn and concerned and annoyed and not diplomatic at all, a new look for her that John would like if it weren't for the fact that he knows exactly what this is about. The conversation is more or less what he expected, full of phrases like "it was only a matter of time" and "only temporary" and "for his own good," and John comes away from the meeting feeling even worse.
He gets another e-mail in the early afternoon the next day, a three-line message from Zelenka, bolded and flagged Urgent. It tells him Rodney left the lab around lunchtime and hasn't been back. A quick call to Keller confirms that Rodney came begging for painkillers at twelve-fifteen, claiming a migraine, and then left again without even demanding to be examined or coddled. Keller sounds worried, but John has to cut her off because suddenly alarms are blaring and he has to go do his job.
It turns out there was another fire, totally unrelated to the first - a genuine electrical fire of some kind in one of the uninhabited sectors of the city that the engineering department has been using for propulsion research. Somebody forgot liquid fuel was flammable, or so John can only assume, and there isn't too much harm done but it takes him, five marines, Zelenka and a handful of miserable engineers to convince the bulkheads to unlock and let them in to put it out.
What with minor injuries and panic and damage control, it's one in the morning by the time he stumbles back into his quarters, showers, and falls into bed. He's almost asleep before he sits up again, fully awake and then fully upright, pulling on his boots again, because he never did track down Rodney.
He tries the obvious places - mess, quarters - first, before giving in and checking for him on the scanner. He finds him, of all places, in the firing range on the West Pier.
John slips in as quietly as he can, not that stealth is all that necessary with Rodney emptying a whole clip into the paper target at the end of the range. How long has he been here? Rodney is sweating and shaking but still sighting, and as he stops to reload, John can hear him muttering something. As he gets close enough to see Rodney lean his forehead against the dividing wall, eyes tight shut, he can hear the words he's whispering; they stutter out into the sudden pressing quiet: "Clear blue skies. Clear blue skies. Clear blue skies."
John stops short, has to take a breath before going on. He makes enough noise that Rodney hears him coming even with the earmuffs, and he turns to take in John with a defensive sneer already in place.
John's prepared for the sneer, for the "Do you mind? I'm kind of busy." But he's not quite prepared for how violently Rodney flinches away from his hands, when he reaches out to pluck the earmuffs off his head. John's frozen as Rodney glares at him, red-faced, chest heaving.
John stares at him for a minute, not sure whether to be angry or worried, but in the end he settles for confused. "What are you doing?" he asks. Rodney, eyes wide behind the safety glasses, looks up the range at the shredded paper target, at the Beretta in his hand, back to John.
"I'd have thought it was obvious," he says nastily, but the scorn is forced.
John strives to keep his face even, his posture relaxed. He sighs. No big deal. "It's one-thirty in the morning," he points out.
"I'm a busy man," Rodney snaps.
"Yeah," agrees John, "so am I. That's why we have scheduled range times. Anyway, your qualification's up to date. And you hate the range. So answer the question."
He's not going to answer the question. John knows that before he asks it. He watches Rodney narrow his eyes at him, and then start unloading the Beretta, holster it, push past him to stow the leftover ammo in the lockers, all with a hurt slump to his shoulders. "I'll get out of your way," he mutters. John lets out an exasperated sigh.
"I'm not kicking you out," he explains. "It's just... it's out of character, and when people I know start acting out of character, I start worrying. Since it's my job and everything, I don't think it's a totally out of line question."
Rodney stops with his hand on the locker door, pulls off the safety glasses and shuts the door slowly. "I was done anyway," he says, shrugging. He meets John's eyes for only a second, looking uncertain and still kind of adversarial. John risks a few steps closer, stops easily when Rodney pulls in on himself a little — not much, but enough that he notices.
Rodney frowns sideways, which is something John's never seen anybody else do, and always makes his breath catch just a little. It distracts him for a second while Rodney's shoulders relax, and he wipes his forehead with one sleeve. "I can't sleep," he admits, "and I can't concentrate, because I can't sleep... like I can't turn off my brain."
He sounds like he finds this puzzling, and John keeps his smile small, because as far as he's ever been able to tell, Rodney's inability to stop his mouth was all the evidence he needed that the brain behind it was always working, too. Rodney's surprise, John thinks, comes mostly from the fact that he's never tried to stop thinking. And why would he? Rodney's typical response to fear is to batter at it with his brain until it lets him past. Just sometimes that doesn't work, and he's not ready to admit it, yet.
But there's something more behind it, something very faintly desperate, and Rodney's not looking at him anymore, but into the stark shadows cast against the walls by the range spotlights, his eyes unfocused. "I thought I could... burn some of it off," he explains. Like grounding a charge. Trust Rodney to try and apply physics to himself even when he's too keyed-up and terrified to sleep.
"I think I would have picked something quieter," suggests John. He sticks his hands in his pockets as Rodney turns back to the metal doors and locks up with a wave of his hand. "I'll run with you, if you want."
Rodney turns back to him quickly, surprised, a little suspicious. For a split-second John's on the verge of telling him everything; that he knows what it feels like, that everybody's worried, what Keller told him and Carter's about to tell him and what's going to happen tomorrow, whether he likes it or not.
But eventually Rodney shakes his head, and John's resolve is gone like dissipating smoke. "I — no." And is it John's imagination, or is there reluctance in the tone? "I think I'm just going to bed." He moves toward the door, and John steps back, giving him plenty of room.
Rodney pauses at the door, and doesn't turn around, but John hears: "Thanks for offering, though," before Rodney's out of sight.
He stands there for a few seconds to be sure Rodney's gone, and then he goes around thinking off lights and shutting doors. When he's back in the corridor, he leans against the wall, forehead flush with the cool metal, and just breathes, feeling the city around him. He's never told anyone, but sometimes it feels properly alive, like it knows him, and that's comforting. For a minute, he stands there unmoving, letting himself float in the half-aware pulse and flow of Atlantis herself.
Eventually, he has to push himself up again, and by the time he reaches his quarters, he's yawning. That's something, he thinks — that at least one of them can sleep. Things are going to get harder in the morning, and he has a feeling he'll be glad he got the rest.
Early in the morning - very early in the morning - of their twenty-first day on Earth, John returned from his run and sprawled cheerfully on his side of the bed, jostling Rodney out of a light doze.
"Let's go hiking," he said, disgustingly awake. Rodney pulled the sheet over his head, trying vainly to block out the noise.
"You are insane," he muttered into his pillow. They'd got to bed late, mostly because Jeannie had somehow emerged from the water fight completely clean and had insisted the three of them were not allowed back into the house until they cleaned off. This had naturally degenerated into another water fight, this time with more mud. By the time it had wound down, Kaleb was home, dodging water balloons from the porch while he barbecued dinner, because it was still too hot at six o'clock to do any real cooking indoors.
John, of course, had still woken up like really irritating clock-work at six AM, as if there was no time difference at all between galaxies.
"Aw, c'mon, Rodney, you did bribe me with the beauty of the outdoors," John wheedled, suddenly leaning into Rodney with his shoulder, so that Rodney got a whiff of sweat and morning fog and stiffened, fighting against the way it made a shiver run through him, all the way down to his toes. John didn't notice, just kept talking about how beautiful a day it was going to be and getting up, mercifully moving away, to open the curtains, which wasn't merciful at all.
"Oh, Christ," whimpered Rodney, burrowing into his pillow.
"Yes, Rodney, that's the sun," John explained patiently, moving around and taking things out of drawers. Rodney was only dimly aware of John peeling off his shirt and picking up his shower kit from the dresser, and then his eyes focused and he was very aware of it and had to close his eyes again, because oh, wow.
It wasn't exactly unexpected, had become matter of course, in fact, but the power of it was like nothing he'd known since the first year in the city and oh. John was still there, and still talking and walking around shirtless and this could get embarrassing if John didn't leave the room right now.
"Fine, fine," he said, finally capitulating in panic when John, still shirtless, crouched shirtlessly down next to the bed to lean in and whine some more. "Fine, we'll go hiking. I hate you."
"You love me," John returned, grinning, and went away, taking his sweat and his smell and his annoying voice and his naked chest with him.
Rodney pressed his face into the pillow for another four minutes and thirteen seconds, praying for death, but when that didn't help he just decided to be immensely grateful that there was more than one bathroom, and that the remaining one was well away from the bedrooms where other, saner people were still sleeping, and oh, god, he hated his life.
On the other hand, he thought, as he padded down the corridor a minute later, they'd been sleeping in the same bed, sleeping touching in the same bed, for nearly three weeks, now, with not a hint of interest from Rodney's wayward libido. So was this a good sign? Were the important parts of his brain working again?
It said something really profound about his current existence that the re-assertion of hopeless, inappropriate crushes could be interpreted as a good sign.
But he got himself back in order with a shower, and made his way downstairs dressed and feeling actually pretty okay. It was a nice day out, might not even be blisteringly, cancer-inducingly hot, either - he checked the weather on the internet as he applied two layers of SPF 50. John asked about good places for hiking, and Jeannie, who had come down while Rodney was showering, made a couple of suggestions, one of which Rodney vetoed immediately.
"Oh, come on, Mer. The Mountain's got some great trails, and you'd have a beautiful view of Deep Cove. Plus there's a great restaurant, in case you've forgotten." Jeannie was teasing him, he could tell, but John was just watching them and grinning.
"We'll hardly be in a condition to eat in a restaurant after getting all revolting and sweaty, and it's called Cardiac Hill for a reason," he shot back.
"I don't know, Rodney. It kind of sounds like a challenge to me," John said, still grinning.
Rodney just glared at him. "This from a man who thinks it's fun to jump out of perfectly-functional planes at several thousand feet. I think we can safely say that your judgement is somewhat skewed."
"Meredith!" Jeannie 's scolding tone was softened by the giggle that followed it.
Rodney kept glaring, intent on making his point. "Just believe me when I say it's not an ironic title."
When they went out to the car an hour later, Rodney stared at it for almost ten minutes while John was still in the house, making lunch. It was Jeannie's car, the Prius he'd bought her. The back tire was flat; there was nothing unusual about that. What was unusual was that there was a magnetic Support Our Troops decal on the back of the car.
For a minute or two, Rodney wasn't sure what to make of it. It was the yellow ribbon kind, the kind with the tiny maple leaf at the peak of the loop and the letters in curling white cursive. It stood out against the pale green of the Prius paint job, or he might not have noticed it at all when he went to open the trunk for the air compressor he knew Jeannie kept there.
Yellow meant "missing." He was pretty sure, anyway.
It had to be Jeannie's. Jeannie, who hated just about everything the military in any country stood for. But...
"Finally noticed that, huh?" Rodney whirled — Kaleb was standing at the foot of the front steps, the strap of a red MEC backpack on one shoulder and the other hand in the pocket of his corduroy blazer. God, how archetypal, Rodney thought, it probably has patches on the elbows, but his eyes were drawn back to the decal.
"When did she..." he gestured vaguely at it, and Kaleb came to stand beside him.
"The first year you were... you know. Gone," Kaleb told him, shrugging.
"But I wasn't... doesn't yellow mean..."
"'Missing in Action,'" Kaleb supplied, looking at him with a shuttered sort of expression.
Rodney stared at it in silence for a couple of seconds longer. "But I wasn't missing."
"Well, she didn't know that." There was a sudden prickle of anger in Kaleb's voice, and Rodney looked up in surprise.
"You never told her you were going. That you were going. She tried to call you one day and you didn't answer. It was around Mad's second birthday. But no answer. After a month, she started calling the military, and they wouldn't tell her anything. Finally it had been three months since she'd talked to you and the best she got was a letter from some General telling her you were... far away, somewhere secret, and that there was no way to know if you were ever coming back."
Rodney stared at him, absorbing Kaleb's silent anger and finding he had no adequate response. "Oh," he said, weakly.
"Yeah," agreed Kaleb. "At that point assuming the worst wasn't exactly stupid."
Rodney turned back to the yellow decal. They'd known going through the Stargate the first time that it might be a one-way trip. Every member of the expedition had known it. And most of them had been chosen, at least in part, because they didn't have anything on Earth to hold them. At the time, he and Jeannie hadn't spoken in almost two years and he had consequently counted himself alone, without anything to hold him there. It truly hadn't occurred to him that the feeling might not be mutual.
They hadn't just fought about the baby, or about Jeannie dropping out. She'd always hated his work; hated that he'd chosen to use his talents for the benefit of the American military rather than ordinary people. When he'd accused her of ruining her life, throwing away a promising career, she'd called him a hypocrite. He'd always had as little to do with academia as he could manage, finding them ridiculous, ponderous, a hindrance.
At the time, he'd thought he'd burned his all his bridges. And she had been the one to say "I hate you." Not him.
He'd written her seven letters in the week before they left and never had the courage to send even one.
"She thought I was dead." It wasn't a question. He felt strangely numb.
"She thought you might be." Kaleb's voice was prickly again, but not quite with anger. "And that message didn't help."
Message...? Oh. The last-ditch databurst, their first call back to Earth; the not-goodbye, explaining nothing, that had reached Jeannie though the video hadn't. It had been a little cruel, he realised now, outlining how he'd like her to protect his estate in the event of his death. But at the time he'd only thought that someone had to, and she was all he had. It had implied nothing, exactly, but hadn't offered anything, either.
"Well, in my defence," he explained, unable to keep a grim smile off his face, "when I wrote that I really did think I was going to die."
Kaleb muttered something that sounded a little like "lucky you," but he couldn't quite make it out and wasn't going to ask it be repeated. He kept staring at the decal.
"I've got a bus to catch," Kaleb said then, and turned away. "See you later."
"Yeah," said Rodney, barely looking up as he went.
The drive to Diez Vistas - it meant "ten views" but Rodney told John only four of them were really worth it - was quiet and peaceful; it was still early, the streets relatively empty, the light cool and grey. Rodney gave John the occasional direction as they skirted Port Moody and took the turnoff for Buntzen Lake, leaning back in his seat, enjoying the silence of the narrow rural road, the trees pressing in on both sides. A week ago it would have panicked him, but John was there, so it was all right.
They finally turned into the rustic parking lot and turned off the engine, and Rodney stood looking around for a second, getting his bearings.
"You been here before?" asked John, doing another habitual check of the contents of their backpacks, even though Rodney had made a perfectly serviceable checklist.
"Not for years," he answered, absently, then dug in his pocket for the map Jeannie had given him. Kaleb was one of those freaks who went hiking for fun, and so he had trail maps of most of the good hiking areas within three hours' drive. He handed the map to John. "Here. I think I remember most of it, but you're better at maps than I am, anyway."
John took the map, blinking at him in apparent surprise until Rodney demanded: "What?"
John smiled, slipping the map into the side-pocket of his pack before slipping the straps over his shoulders. "Nothing. Just usually you'd go crashing off into the trees and ignore me, if I asked you that kind of question."
Rodney felt his face reddening. "Well, if you'd rather get hopelessly lost in the wilderness-"
The smile never faltered. "Rodney, we're twenty minutes' drive from a strip mall."
"Yes, well," Rodney said, but couldn't think of anything else to say, so he just scanned the edge of the lot again, spotting the reflective green-and-white sign that marked the beginning of the trail. "Come on. This was your idea."
He didn't wait for John, but he knew John followed anyway.
It was a little more than an hour, and getting warmer, before they burst from the trees into a denuded stripe of grass that stretched down the ridge in an unnaturally straight line. John paused as Rodney trudged straight across, then stopped, looking back at John with puzzlement.
"What - oh. It's a right-of-way," Rodney told him, pointing up. There were massive power lines stretching overhead, the huge wooden poles marching down the incline like matchsticks at a distance. "They keep it clear for the Hydro lines." Rodney kept walking, reached the far edge where the cleared area was bisected by a huge rusted pipe, and put his hands on his hips. "There are some interesting urban legends about Hydro right-of-ways and fertility, John," he said impatiently, and John hurried to catch up, just belatedly realising the way the hair on his arms seemed to be tingling with the hum of electric power. It was uncomfortable enough that he almost stumbled as he reached Rodney.
"You're worried about my fertility. I'm touched," he joked, and was taken aback when Rodney blushed a deep shade of pink.
"Come on," he snapped, "if I recall correctly, it gets steeper up here."
The trail did, indeed, get steeper beyond the cut, and John let Rodney take the lead, because it was easier to move slowly than to wait for Rodney to huff and puff and snipe his way up behind him. It also allowed him to appreciate his surroundings, the forest cool and shadowed and dim, trees leaning and pressing so close the air even felt green; not wild, but ponderous, deliberate, aware. It was like being in Atlantis, but the sense of something much younger, and at the same time much, much older. He knew he was imagining it, but that didn't mean he couldn't enjoy it. It wasn't every day, anymore, that he got to take a walk through the woods without being shot at.
The trail veered right and left and upwards in seemingly endless switchbacks, until suddenly they came out at the top in the open air, and John was actually breathless at the sight.
From the top of the ridge a seemingly endless expanse of land and water stretched out to the horizon. A line of sharp-edged conifers framed the view spreading out beneath them, but beyond them was the water, and green and craggy fingers of little islands and the jut of the mainland and beyond it all, John thought, the ocean, though he couldn't be sure.
"Wow," he said, as Rodney sat down on a huge rock and dug in his pack for his bottle of water.
"Yeah," he agreed, sounding just a little short of breath as John sat down next to him. "Cool, huh?"
John nudged him with his shoulder. "I thought you hated hiking."
Rodney huffed, shrugged. "I can still like the view," he said, and then brightened. "Still got the map?"
John obligingly handed it over, and Rodney unfolded it on his knees, squinting down at it for a second before raising one hand to give names to the various humps and rises of land. "Okay... that's... that's Burnaby, there, at least the edge of it. Uh... I think that's Belcarra — I think there's a much less steep trail there, if you're interested. Oh. That's Burnaby Mountain." He gave the air a particularly vicious stab. "Which by the way is subsiding into Deep Cove, making it a brilliant place to build a university."
John didn't need to look at Rodney to know he was rolling his eyes, but he looked anyway, and saw a grin sneaking its way onto his face. He was enjoying himself, even if he wouldn't admit it, and they'd both needed this. To just do something for the sake of it, without thinking about why they were here or what had happened or anything more important than a beautiful day or a breathtaking view.
"You can see the city - I mean the real city, downtown - on the edge, there," he pointed again, and John made out distant skyscrapers and streets all scattered in a sort of sparkly white pattern beyond the nearest floating fingers of rock and bristly green. There were three and a half million people down there and it still looked unfinished, new. Though maybe his perspective was just a little skewed.
"What's that, out there?" John asked, after a minute or so of just staring, appreciatively.
John pointed, tracing a long oblong of pale, hazy blue against the paler blue of the sky, set against the far edge of the distance.
"What - oh." Rodney squinted again, folding the map carefully back into its assigned creases and handing it back to him. "That's Vancouver Island. You can't always see it, but it's pretty clear today. Usually there's haze."
John dropped his arm, regarding Rodney thoughtfully as he slid the map back into the pocket of John's pack. "That's where you grew up, right?"
"Hm? Yes. There." He gestured vaguely at the far southern tip of the blue blob. "You can't see it, of course. It's too far away. And there's not much to see, anyway. It's a city, but not a big one."
Rodney was babbling. John frowned at his profile, because Rodney didn't babble unless he was excited or uncomfortable or terrified, and John couldn't find anything about the situation that should inspire any of those things.
"Not a swinging party scene?" John asked, lightly, and was rewarded with a sharp, painful-sounding bark of laugher.
"I was fifteen when I started my undergrad, remember? And I was never exactly..." he made a vague hand-gesture that John understood perfectly, an all-encompassing expression of what Rodney wasn't exactly.
"But you must've gone home for holidays and stuff," John said, curiously.
"Not if I could help it," Rodney muttered back with surprising bitterness. "But I'm sure it's just as somnolent as it was when I was fifteen. It was just..." he stopped, there, frowning down at his water bottle, twisting and untwisting the cap.
"Just what?" John asked, knowing he shouldn't push, probably, but really wanting to know. Rodney curled in on himself a little. "Come on."
"I was glad when I was old enough to leave, okay?" Rodney finally said, the words jumbled together and coupled with an awkward, one-sided shrug. "That's all."
That so clearly wasn't all. But it was all Rodney was going to say, that much was clear. God, and he'd thought his childhood was a fucking mess. He didn't talk about it, but because he didn't want to, because it was unpleasant, not because it was actually too painful to think about. Rodney's hands were shaking.
"I'm sorry," John muttered. Rodney just shrugged.
John stared down at his palms, as if he could find an answer there, knowing he should say something else, aside from an apology; it had been days since they'd talked about anything real, and the last time hadn't been anywhere near this pleasant. And wasn't that a change, that it had taken all of this to get them to a place where it felt halfway normal to ask questions about things that were real, things that weren't right there in front of them? Weird, too, because John had always figured they kept on the safe side of that line for a reason.
He looked at Rodney again, who was still staring out over the valley. But all he could think of was a selfish question, something that had been bothering him for days, for weeks, even, and he'd kept himself from asking because... well, because he'd been terrified of the answer, honestly, and hadn't wanted to inspect why it scared him so much.
"Are you coming back?"
It came out strangled, more than he'd expected, though he kept his face straight, stiff, because if Rodney looked at him when he felt this way he was pretty sure he'd lose it, and that would be embarrassing. But Rodney didn't look at him — he just shut his eyes, as if he'd been expecting the question.
The silence stretched out until it felt thin and brittle, and John dragged his eyes away from Rodney's profile, instinctively seeking out the long shining line of the distant Pacific, a thin sparkling thread girdling the sky beyond Vancouver Island. Somewhere out there was a place that had hurt Rodney so much that he'd never wanted to see it again, and it wouldn't have shaken John so deeply if he'd been able, in that instant, of imagining anywhere so completely home as Atlantis. He'd never had anything to hold him to Earth. He'd never expected to feel tied to anywhere else, either, but once he had, he certainly hadn't expected to discover there was anything else that might come to matter as much.
He really, really hadn't imagined he might end up having to choose between the two, and the idea alone was making him feel a little sick.
But Rodney said: "I want to," in a broken sort of voice, and John practically sagged with relief, and before really thinking about it, was reaching out to curl his fingers around Rodney's forearm, squeezing gently, and saying:
"I want you to."
I, not we, and goddamn, he really hadn't meant to say that. But Rodney was just looking down at John's hand on his arm, not moving away, not reciprocating, just staring at it, like he'd never seen it before. Eventually, feeling confused, John dropped his hand, and turned back to the view. A breeze was sweeping up the ridge, cooling the sweat from the climb, calming the whirl of distant panic at the back of John's head until he could only remember it, but he could feel Rodney thinking.
"Well, come on," said Rodney after a while, getting to his feet. "Burning daylight, still six kilometres to cover." All in the awful, brisk, cheerful voice John had come to associate with fatal gunshot wounds. Rodney demanded sympathy for everything except what was really important, because if it was important to hold close, it could hurt you. The question was still there, not quite answered.
But it struck too close to home, and for the moment, John let it go.
It was growing dark by the time they made it back to the car, and Rodney dropped into the passenger seat without even making a grab for the keys - he was bone-tired and oddly content, thought he might even fall asleep in the car.
He was, in fact, just beginning to doze off, comfortable and lulled by the sound of the engine and John humming tunelessly to himself, when he was jolted awake by the sound of a siren. Then they were slowing down and Rodney heard the gravel shoulder crunch under their tires, and he turned and glared at John, who held up his hands in a gesture of innocence.
"Nothing! I wasn't even speeding!" But he still looked nervous as he rolled down the window for the nice lady in the motorcycle helmet and handed over his wallet and the plastic sleeve full of ICBC insurance papers Rodney frantically dug out of the glove compartment.
Rodney subjected John to a mental dressing-down but didn't actually say anything as the female officer - obvious only by the curves under her uniform, because she was still wearing her helmet - paged through the documents, making the hmm noise of disapproval that Rodney thought the bureaucratic system must train into its servants.
"So what's the verdict?" John asked, after almost a minute of uneasy silence, and Rodney couldn't believe he'd just mentioned verdicts to a police officer when they'd probably just broken several laws, because that was just the sort of thing John Sheppard did.
"Well, there's a problem," said the police officer, finally raising her visor, and of course she was hot. There was just no justice in the Universe at all. John immediately put on his puzzled-but-honest face.
She looked up from John's wallet. "Thing is, your license is expired."
"What?" yelped Rodney. "You've been driving around without a license?"
John gave him a look, the tight-lipped, raised-eyebrows smile that meant Please, shut up, and let me be charming before they kill us.
Rodney wanted to say something nasty like maybe Earth women may not as easy as wide-eyed village girls in the Pegasus Galaxy, but of course it wasn't true. The cop met John's open, puzzled look and smiled like she couldn't help herself.
"You're kidding," John said, craning his neck to look at the license like he'd never seen it before. He chuckled, low and self-deprecating and really irritatingly sexy. Rodney scowled at the dashboard in disbelief as the policewoman's smile grew wider.
She shook her head anyway, though. "It's two years out of date, Mr. Sheppard. I'm afraid this is a problem."
"Seriously?" Rodney finally asked from the passenger seat, annoyed beyond all reason. "He flies jet planes for a living, and it's a 'problem' that his license to drive a six-cylinder combustion-engine vehicle — which by the way, couldn't pass the speed of sound if there was a tyrannosaurus rex on our tail — is a couple of years out of date?"
"Rodney." John's voice had that warning note, the one he usually used when they were surrounded by angry, spear-bristling mobs in funny headdresses.
"Oh no," Rodney began indignantly, but John reached out and placed a hand over his mouth, with strange, abrupt gentleness, and turned his head just enough to give him a later look. Rodney was so surprised that he stopped talking, even after John took his hand away. Rodney touched fingers to his lips, actually struck silent, still imagining he could feel the calluses of John's fingers on his skin.
John turned back to the cop, who was watching the exchange with speculative eyes. "Listen," John drawled, "obviously these are exceptional circumstances. We've been on assignment... overseas, and kind of far from anywhere that needed a driver's license."
Overseas, thought Rodney scathingly, with a purely mental eyeroll.
"On assignment?" she asked, and because Rodney was watching he saw her face change. "I saw the Support Our Troops magnet on the back. You guys military?" She gave Rodney a vaguely sceptical look, but Rodney just glared at her.
"My ID is in the wallet," John said, and she flipped obligingly until she found the U.S. Air Force identification card. She looked thoughtfully between John and the card, and then finally shrugged, and handed it back.
"You know what?" she said, scribbling quickly on her pad, "I'm going to let you off with a warning this time. Just make sure you get that license renewed as soon as you can."
He could only see the back of John's head, but Rodney could just picture the slow, dazzling smile John was giving her. He saw it reflected in her face, the quirk of her mouth, the way she brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes.
She would be blonde.
"Why thank you," John murmured, "I really appreciate your understanding."
"Don't mention it," she said, giving John a warm, bracing smile, and a smaller, sadder one to Rodney, "my little brother's AIRCOM, in Afghanistan. I know what it's like trying to adjust." She tossed off a little mock-salute. "You take care now. And watch your speed."
"Have a good night," John called after her, and turned to Rodney with a completely insufferable grin of triumph and relief. "There," he said, "that wasn't so bad, was it?" The smile was sincere, and teasing, and that was just completely, utterly, painfully unfair.
John was looking at him with that odd, fond tilt, that bright spark of affection Rodney usually saw only for a second and later decided he'd imagined, brief as it was. He only ever saw it when they were in mortal peril, really, so it was possible his perceptions were skewed on that point, but sometimes, in his more paranoid moments, he wondered if John only dragged it up to push him. That it wasn't real. That he didn't mean it.
It always worked, because it was a challenge and a threat and it made something inside Rodney coil warm and hopeful and terrified like nothing else in the world ever had, including the first time he'd ever seen the Stargate.
But just like every other time, he wasn't quite sure, and there, again, was the fact that this was John, and John would never, couldn't...
For the second time Rodney was struck silent without even trying, just staring, wanting to be angry and wanting to be violent and just... wanting, with such dizzying bitterness that he didn't trust himself to speak.
He pressed his forehead against the cool glass of the passenger side window, and firmly ignored the other voice, the faint underlying worry of the tone, until John gave up. Then they were pulling away from the gravel shoulder of the road, and they spent the rest of the trip in silence.
"How do you do that?" Rodney finally asked, as they were pulling into the Millers' driveway. He sounded both awed and annoyed, and he was still clutching the pink paper of the "just-a-warning-this-time" form. It was the first time he'd spoken in almost half an hour.
"Do what?" John tried to sound guileless. It probably wasn't working.
Rodney snorted. "There are not enough James Kirk jokes in the world," he snapped, getting out of the car and slamming the door behind him.
It took John a second to follow, because he was still processing the look the cop had given him after she glanced at Rodney. At Rodney and then at him. John hadn't realised what his hand was doing until he was already covering Rodney's mouth, easy as breathing and completely natural.
He never thought about it, hadn't until recently, when reaching for Rodney sent him flinching away. In Atlantis it was something he just did. People in Pegasus touched each other a lot more than he'd ever been used to, before. Whether that came of a much more perilous lifestyle or just much looser general propriety (if that was the word) he'd never been sure. The first time Teyla had taken his shoulders in her strong small hands and touched their foreheads together, he'd had to steel himself to keep from flinching away. But that was familiar now.
He'd had to remind himself, after they'd stepped through the gate, to watch his hands, not only for Rodney's sake but because they were arriving on Earth via a U.S. military base and there were already enough rumours on his record, unfounded and otherwise. He had no interest in feeding anyone's gossip, true or not. And it wasn't.
But the policewoman - who up until that moment had been flirting with him - had shifted gears so easily that it had actually left him floundering for a second, even more when he realised why. What she'd assumed.
They'd gotten the same looks in the park the day Rodney had his flashback, too. John had sensed that and been too distracted to give a damn. The strange thing wasn't the looks - those were familiar, if not so much in the recent past - it was that none of them, so far, had come laced with any real animosity. Surprise, sure, but nothing else he'd come to expect. Indulgence, if anything.
It had to be the city. For one thing he'd never seen so many rainbow stickers in his entire life. There had been one in the window of the college daycare, for fuck's sake. And he was pretty sure that the salesgirl at the Space Centre gift shop — the one who'd been so cranky over having to take American money — had assumed he and Rodney were together, too.
And Jeannie. He let out a slightly hysterical chuckle and let his head rest on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. God, it was a good thing Rodney was so oblivious. John hadn't been paying attention, and of course Rodney never paid attention to people unless they were useful, but in hindsight it was almost funny.
Except... it wasn't true. But Rodney...
"Fuck," he muttered, and opened the car door.
Jeannie and Kaleb and Madison had gone to Kaleb's parents' for dinner, so the house was empty and dark as John circled it, pushing open the gate and stepping into the back yard. It was blue-black under the shadow of the neighbouring houses, except for the little pools of light cast by the porch lamps, the bright blue mosquito-zapper, and the faint yellow glow of the little solar-powered lanterns scattered throughout the garden. Somewhere nearby, in a neighbouring yard, a sprinkler was running.
He glanced automatically up at the sky, but was disappointed; the sky never looked right on Earth anymore. It was too dark, too faint — scattered with a few anaemic stars bleached out by the sprawling glare of human cities. There was nothing at all like the sky over New Lantea, millions upon millions of stars so great in number they seemed to crowd one another, making you feel small, powerless, but at the same time awestruck, significant, eternal.
Rodney was standing in the middle of the yard, looking up. To John's surprise, he didn't look angry; more confused, maybe annoyed, looking at the few visible stars as if they could make things make sense. John wasn't even within arm's reach of him before he said:
"The last time we were here, Jeannie asked if I was going to marry Katie."
And John stopped, like Rodney had slapped him. "You..." Jesus. "You didn't tell me that." He glanced toward the porch, feeling like he should really sit down, but didn't move. "Are—"
Rodney — the bastard — just shrugged. "I thought about it," he said. "But Katie — Katie didn't..." Now he sounded unhappy, and glanced at John, who could only stare at him. He hoped the horrified feeling gnawing at his gut wasn't showing on his face, because although there was a possibility that Rodney was just fucking with him, if he wasn't, that would just not be cool.
But Rodney said: "We stopped... seeing each other, I don't know, months ago. Katie deserves better than me."
What John felt wasn't exactly relief, but it was close. He said, weakly, because he felt he was supposed to: "Hey. She would have been lucky to..."
Rodney rolled his eyes, and now John felt like he was back in familiar territory. "You thought it was a joke from the second I started dating her," he pointed out.
"I didn't think she was right for you," John replied, shocked into honesty. "That's not the same thing."
Rodney frowned at him, and then lifted one hand to rub at the bridge of his nose, looking pained. "Well," he said, "that's true enough." Then he raised his head, and looked at John with serious, expectant eyes and a flush rising in his face. "Though obviously there were other reasons it would have been a gigantic disaster."
It was like Rodney had reached into his chest and squeezed, and John was suddenly rooted to the spot, because about two seconds of frantic mental replay had him completely and totally certain that Rodney really had just admitted what it sounded like he'd admitted. John felt his mouth opening and closing soundlessly as he groped for an answer, but apparently his speech centres were also suffering from some form of panic-induced paralysis.
"I don't — I didn't—"
Which was clearly the wrong thing to say, because Rodney's face made the transformation from pained into furious within a couple of breaths.
"Oh, no you don't. You may be able to pull that dumb-as-I-look crap with other people, but I know better." Rodney's voice was sharp, strained, disbelieving. Hurt. He advanced on John in three long strides, jabbing him hard in the chest with each syllable. "Don't even pretend you didn't know. Because on top of everything else that's just... just..." He turned away again, and John couldn't see him but his posture was tense, the tips of his ears flushed pink.
"I didn't!" John protested, purely out of reflex. "How was I supposed to—"
But that was a load of crap. And not really fair, either, because he did know, had known. The idea of Rodney hiding how he felt about anything was basically laughable; it would have been way too complicated to notice, that was all. At least that was what John had always told himself. In the heat of any moment it hadn't really occurred to him that it was something more than chemical, not consciously, anyway — and that wasn't the same thing.
Which was stupid, he realised now, because they were friends, closer to each other than John had ever been to anyone, and that changed everything.
Maybe he had used it in the past, when there was nothing else and no one else to save the day, because the best way to motivate Rodney was to challenge him. Maybe he had known that his baffling ability to sway people with a smile and a tilt of his head worked better on Rodney than any dozen chieftans' daughters or alien priestesses they'd ever encountered, even though Rodney noticed and called him on it and then did what John wanted anyway.
...okay, yeah. He was an asshole.
But instead of several reasonably intelligent, appropriately sensitive things he could have said, things that might have eased them back from the edge of this very dangerous ledge, he said: "I didn't know you were..." And it was a rotten lie, turning to ash in his mouth as soon as he'd said it.
"I'm not," Rodney snapped, glaring at John like he was an idiot.
John blinked at him, confused. "Then... huh?"
Rodney huffed out a sigh, took a few steps across the grass, towards the edge of the yard. "I don't know. I like who I like," was the flippant answer, but when John just stared at him he stopped and turned back. He turned red, and shrugged, a jerk up and down, almost defensive. His chin came up, and he said, almost primly: "I don't like labels."
Except yours, thought John, and then he thought: huh, as he recognised exactly that tone of voice and the cadence, because genetics was a strange and puzzling thing sometimes.
Rodney looked at John again and added testily: "I'm kind of picky about who I consider even worthy acquaintances, if you didn't notice, and of the extremely limited list of acceptable candidates none of them have ever tried beating down my door for... you know. Other reasons." He shrugged again. "I take these things on a case-by-case basis."
"And you decided this when?" asked John, unable to keep the amused drawl from his voice.
Rodney looked at him, shoulders still hunched up somewhere around his ears. "I don't know," he muttered. "Fourteen? Fifteen? Around the time my parents finally got rid of me."
It was at least the third time Rodney had talked about his parents like that, a short shock of jumbled words like he was tearing off a band-aid, and then moving quickly past.
John said nothing, certainly not about the fact that he'd spent a perhaps inappropriate amount of time picturing Rodney as a kid, and so it was easy to envision that. Teenaged Rodney, short and awkward, looking out at the world and the way other people related to each other and concluding, with studied detachment, that their methods were counterintuitive, were unrepeatable, were unscientific, were stupid. All undertaken in self-defence, maybe, out of utter confusion, because anyone with eyes and ears could tell Rodney had never been any good with people, but with that strange, calm concentration he devoted to everything he considered important.
Something about the image made John's heart hurt, a little.
"I don't... I'm not one or the other," Rodney muttered, more to Jeannie's rosebushes than to John. "I just... you. Okay?"
John almost didn't hear the last part, almost lost under the rhythmic hiss of the sprinkler and the breeze, and the fact that Rodney's voice had dropped away until it was almost a whisper. And John didn't know what made him do it, but before he knew what he was doing his mouth was moving, and his voice, riding the crest of a wave of panic and hope and grim determination, was saying:
Rodney froze, and then he spun around so fast that he stumbled, and had to catch himself on a low-hanging branch. It was almost comical for a split-second, until he saw Rodney's face, written with horror and astonishment and accusation and oh, crap.
Rodney looked mad, he looked pissed, and he had a right to be. It was John's fault, he'd left it too long, known and said nothing and acted like it didn't matter and used it. Maybe there were some things you couldn't forgive, and somehow it was so much worse now that it had been said. Maybe irreparable.
He was suddenly driven breathless and shaky-kneed by the slight widening of Rodney's eyes as he stepped into the light - and, god, Rodney had the bluest eyes of anyone John had ever known - and he sat down, heavy and abrupt, on the top step of Jeannie's porch.
"You— you—" stuttered Rodney.
"Yeah," admitted John, hoarsely, and forcing himself to look away, he added: "Sorry." He felt hollow and horrible.
He could still feel Rodney's eyes on him, like they were burning a hole in him, and he was about to get up, go inside, never speak of it again, when Rodney gave a little huff and took a breath, and John recognised it as his God, how can you possibly be this stupid? noise.
He jerked his head up as Rodney was closing the space between them, hands reaching out, cupping John's cheek with a big warm hand, turning his face into the blue-yellow glare of the porch light.
"Jesus fucking Christ, you are such an idiot," Rodney hissed, and then Rodney was kissing him.
When they parted with a wet sound a few seconds — minutes, days — later, Rodney was breathing hard, and wasted only enough oxygen to gasp, furiously: "So what the fuck took you so long?"
And then he was folding up into John's arms with a noise like a sob, holding on like he'd never let go again, and John held on right back.
There's an e-mail waiting for John when he gets back to his room. So much for sleep, he thinks, when he sees it's from Carter, asking him to come see her... three hours ago. Okay, well, so he's been busy. But the tone of the message makes it clear it's not optional. That it's time-sensitive. So he goes right back out.
She doesn't answer her door, and after a few attempts he wrestles briefly with himself before just asking the door to open - and it does, like they always do. He steps inside, looking uneasily around for a minute, ready to step back out again if she's not there, or if she's there and he's just pissed her off... but he sees the back of her head, over the back of the couch.
"Hello?" he ventures, softly, but she still doesn't answer, so he moves carefully around the end of the couch.
Carter's leaning her head in her hands, and on the tablet in her lap he can see a long, complicated equation full of stylus notations. John realises with a jolt that she's been checking the same math Zelenka told him about, the equation that caused the fire. He realises subsequently that she's actually dozing, and he actually feels bad about shaking her awake.
"Hmm?" she says, muzzily, clears her throat as she recognises him. "Oh. Hi." She's still soft-edged with sleep, wearing an oversized green t-shirt and sweatpants and fluffy purple socks, and looks like anything but the leader of a city in space, even less like somebody who once blew up a sun or sent an Asgard warship hurtling into a planet. He likes her better this way, mussed and human. Her t-shirt says "Science: It Works, Bitches" in faded white letters.
"Sorry I just barged in," he apologises. "But you didn't answer—"
She interrupts him with a shrug. "I didn't lock it," and: "I was expecting you. I just drifted off."
It absolves him of feeling awkward, but all the same, he's not sure how to act around her right now, and it takes her a moment or two to notice, to shake herself a little, to sit up straight, gesture him to a seat. She stays like she is, though, legs tucked up underneath her, like she's too tired to give a damn about decorum. He likes that, too, thinks, as Carter drags fingers irritably through her hair, that this is something Elizabeth never managed, made him feel like they were equals. He never minded, helped set those lines where they were, considered it natural. At the core, Elizabeth was better than he was and he knew it. Carter isn't, and she knows it, too.
"So, Colonel," he says, "you wanted to see me?" As if they haven't both rehearsed every word of this conversation already.
But she makes a face, annoyed, he thinks, and says, "Oh, for — will you please just use my name? It's—" she glances at her watch, "—three-fifteen in the morning and this conversation isn't exactly on the books."
He blinks at her, feeling sheepish. "Sorry. Sam?"
She sighs her relief. "Sam." And then: "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he says, frowning. He thinks he means it.
She holds up the tablet. "I'm guessing you know what this is?"
He gives it a second glance, thorough enough this time to be sure it's the same file Radek sent him. He went over the math himself, and although he couldn't follow most of it with a casual inspection, even he found several obvious mistakes, false assumptions, leaps of illogic. He looks away, because the evidence of Rodney's decaying faculties made him a little queasy then, and it's no better now, with so little sleep under his belt.
Instead, he drops his head. "Yeah."
"Did you understand it?"
It's not a challenge, not dubious or condescending, not even pre-emptively amazed, like it would be, coming from Rodney - she's really asking. He glances up, sees her watching him with nothing but curiosity. But there's an underlying tension, shadows under her eyes. She's probably gone over it half a dozen times in the space it took him to get through the first three pages, and she looks slightly bereft, like somebody's knocked her legs out from under her but she's had to stand up again anyway.
"Enough of it," he tells her.
She sets it down on the low table between the couch and the chair, and for a moment they both stare at it, the white stylus scribbles intersecting the tidy, orderly, wrong lines of numbers and symbols like twitches and curse words. He knows she and McKay had years of math-fights before they even met. John also knows that for Rodney (though Rodney would never, ever admit it), the fact that Carter was almost never wrong was a sort of universal constant.
John thinks the feeling may have been mutual. For years, they've probably had no other equal but each other. John tries to imagine what that's like, being so high at the top of your game that almost nobody could reach you, and then having the only challenger struck down, not by death or fair defeat, but by nightmares.
He really can't decide if that's worse or better than how it feels to him. Can't be good, though.
"What are you going to do?" he asks eventually, when she says nothing for something like twenty seconds.
"Jennifer's relieving him of duty as of 0900," Sam says, still staring at the tablet. John reaches out and blanks it with the touch of a button, blinking at her.
"Jennifer?" Keller's been on Atlantis a while, John knows, but she hardly talked to anyone outside of the infirmary until she was made CMO, and John's pretty sure that the only person who calls her by her first name is Teyla.
Sam blinks at him. "Doctor Keller worked at the SGC for several years. Under Janet Fraser."
"Oh." Of course. Right. But they're getting off the point. "He's already grounded from off-planet missions."
She sounds pained. "I thought we agreed that —"
"No, no, we still do," he says quickly, but he frowns. "And obviously he can't..." He can't think straight. "Obviously he can't stay on... working, like this. I just mean, what else is there for him to do?"
"I thought you met with Doctor Keller." Sam's watching him, carefully, gauging him, he thinks. She knows he did. And now he's betting she and Keller talked about it, before and after.
"She did," he confirms, just as carefully. "And I still think it's risky. I think putting him on medical leave is going to make it harder for him to come back. I mean..." he gestures bitterly with one hand, trying to invoke the SGC, Earth, everything that encompasses their little world from light-years away without every seeing them up-close. "...even the SGC is going to hesitate about sending somebody back here who..."
He glares balefully at the darkened screen of the tablet, looks up at Sam through lowered eyelashes. "We both know what that kind of report can do to someone's career."
"I'm not filing a report!" she says sharply, and she actually sounds a little indignant about it. "I'm not... look, as far as the SGC is concerned, this is accumulated leave. It's not he's taken time off in the last four years for anything outside of an emergency, and now that we've got the bridge working, we can take advantage of leave allowances."
"You're assuming he'll go peacefully," John notes, wryly, and gets a wry smile back.
"I'm assuming he'll kick and scream and complain, but eventually listen to reason. I'm hoping he will," she corrects herself, with a frown, like she hadn't thought of that.
But then she says: "I think you should go with him."
John's head snaps up, takes in her closed, cautious expression, how she has her hands folded together on her knees.
It's a fucking city-wide conspiracy. He honest-to-god can't decide whether he's offended or flattered.
John feels his mouth twist, feels something else twist in the general area of his stomach, feels the chill settling over him. But even as he opens his mouth to say something he'll probably regret, she adds: "It wasn't a question," with delicate, serious emphasis and his mouth just snaps shut of its own accord. She's talking again as he fights down the surge of panic that was creeping up his throat.
"Look —" her voice sounds a little stretched, like she's the one taking the leap, swinging over something deep and dangerous and important. "I'm going to be totally blunt with you, and later, if you want, you can pretend we never had this conversation. Okay?"
She must take his silence as assent, which is good, because he can't think of a goddamn thing to say. "He needs to get away from here, for a while. He needs to get his bearings someplace relatively safe."
It's a phrase the counsellor in basic training used, John remembers it. After trauma, the first important step is to get your bearings. Re-orient yourself with familiar surroundings. Feel safe. But nothing's grounding Rodney right now, and by no stretch of the imagination can Atlantis be called safe. Not even when it is.
"He's not going to do that as long as he's pretending nothing's wrong. You know that."
This time it is a question, and he glances up again to be surprised by the earnestness on her face.
"Yeah," he agrees, quietly.
"But the problem with a safe place is... it does absolutely no good if you're living where he is right now."
Her voice actually cracks, just on the last syllable, and for the fraction of a second he thinks she's going to cry or something, but of course she doesn't, she's Samantha Carter, she blew up a sun once. Instead, she looks grave, and as if right now she doesn't give a flying fuck about the regs, she just wants things to be okay.
There were rumours about SG-1, he remembers. All kinds of rumours, ranging up and down the scale like they were prone to do on a closed base. That they were too close. That they'd flouted the regs for what amounted to personal reasons more times than could be counted, but never been called on it because they were SG-1, for fuck's sake. So at least... at least maybe she understands that part of it, the part where the people on your team are your whole world, where you'd do anything for them, where nothing was too much, too close. Maybe.
He remembers the first time Elizabeth handed him the keys to Atlantis; he waited until the door to his quarters had shut behind him, and then slid down the wall to shake for an hour and a half because holy Christ, it was all up to him now. He remembers all over again that this is her first real command, remembers thinking in the beginning she was in way over her head but not showing it.
For a second, she's showing it, and he remembers hearing it in her voice, tinny but fierce through the radio, as he stood at Ava's Stargate. Our people.
"I can't make you go, John, but I can make Rodney, and so can Doctor Keller, for that matter. But I would rather - both of us would rather - keep it from getting official. I assumed you would, too."
John fidgets, but keeps his mouth shut, because of course he would. And Rodney will go quieter if he's not alone. If they can pretend it's nothing. They're good at pretending.
"And I think... look, write it off however you want, I don't care, I understand. But we both know you need to go with him." Her voice is hesitant, but firm and incongruously gentle. Don't be an idiot. I don't care.
He wants to hate her but he can't help feeling pathetically grateful. He doesn't say yes, not out loud, but she hears him anyway.
"Tomorrow, then?" he asks her, wiping sweaty palms on the knees of his BDUs.
She nods, relieved. "Probably best to get it over with."
"Yeah, probably," he agrees, and glances at his watch. It's after 0400. They've been talking for almost an hour. He gets up.
He's halfway to the door when he stops, turns back, exhausted but gripped by a need to say something. When somebody opens themselves up like that you're supposed to say something.
She looks up from her tablet, already back at work, probably hurriedly arranging schedules and replacements and shuffling duty rosters. "Yeah?"
"You're doing a good job."
She doesn't blush - she never does - but her eyes flash surprised, her mouth opening and closing once or twice before she actually says anything. For a second — not even quite that long — she looks shy. But it passes.
"Thank you, John," she says, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips but not quite winning out. "Good night."
He rather doubts it, but he doesn't say so. It's a nice sentiment, anyway.
John didn't sleep much that night, either, though nothing much happened except that now Rodney was pulled flush against him in the bed instead of curled up on the far edge of the mattress. Rodney leaned his face into John's chest and talked about Ava.
He talked for almost two hours, in fits and starts, mostly in a monotone except where he was swallowing back sobs, or when he wasn't swallowing them back at all. Eventually he was talked out, shaking, and he fell into an exhausted sleep with John's arms wound tight around him. John stayed awake for a while, just feeling Rodney breathe, trying to think through the haze of his own bone-deep fatigue and the brimming-over feeling of... joy? Gratitude? Whatever it was, it was hot and bright and purely selfish and made his ears roar, occupying his whole conscious mind until it finally edged him over into sleep, himself.
When Rodney stirred, just as the sun was coming up, he lifted his head from John's shoulder and looked down into John's face, frowning. John just lay there, still sleepy and calm, not quite able to kindle worry to mirror that which he saw in Rodney's eyes. But he did look worried, a little line of it forming between his eyebrows. He touched John's face, still frowning, watching his fingers as they traced over John's temple, along his cheek, under his stubbled jaw. Finally Rodney's fingertips rested on John's lips, and still he stared, eyes wide like he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
"What's the matter?" John asked, softly, and Rodney jumped a little, but John kept him where he was with a hand on his back.
"I thought I'd dreamed it," Rodney said, and dropped his eyes.
"Nope," John told him, grinning, because now that he was awake he kind of couldn't believe it, either, but he sure as hell wasn't complaining, because he felt lucky, of all things. But Rodney still wasn't looking at him. In fact, he was holding very still, except for his fingertips, which were moving, gently, back and forth across the skin just under John's ear.
"What is it?"
Rodney frowned his odd, lopsided frown and looked like he was bracing himself. "What you said..." he murmured, "I mean... what I said... I meant it. And if you didn't..."
"Rodney," John tried to interrupt, because Rodney sounded like he was working himself into a panic attack.
"...because I'd understand if you didn't... I mean I know I'm not... and we're... it's complicated and obviously there could be consequences if we..."
Rodney stopped, his mouth snapping shut, and stared at him, blinking owlishly. "What?"
John slid his hand up to the back of Rodney's neck, pulled him gently down, and kissed Rodney with all the sincerity he possessed. When Rodney pulled back, his mouth was red, just like his face.
"I meant it. Okay?" And it was a good thing they were lying down, because John's head was still spinning over the fact that he'd just done that, that Rodney had let him.
Rodney grinned, looking pleased and almost giddy. "Okay."
He laid back down, sliding an arm over John's waist, and they just laid there for a while, comfortable and sleepy in the coolness of early morning — overnight the temperature had finally, finally gone down — as dawn crept slowly into the room.
After a while — John wasn't sure how long — Rodney mumbled into his chest: "Why didn't you ever say anything?"
John took some time to answer, trying to come up with an answer that wasn't just an excuse. "You never did either," he pointed out, and not for the first time he guessed Rodney was rolling his eyes without even seeing his face.
"I didn't know I was that subtle," Rodney said, sounding amused.
John laughed. "Yeah, okay, fair point," he conceded. After a moment, he added, more seriously: "Like you said. It's complicated."
"Complicated like getting thrown out of the Air Force?" Rodney's voice had turned serious, too, and John guessed he'd been thinking about that for a while.
John didn't bother to remind him that there were over three hundred thousand people on active duty in the Air Force and that probably plenty of them got away with the same thing on a regular basis. Instead, he made himself say: "Complicated like we're friends and like I've... never felt this way about anybody before."
"Oh," said Rodney, his voice small.
"Yeah." John spread his fingers out on Rodney's back, warm through his shirt, asked again what he'd asked the day before, needing the answer even more, now.
"Look, you're... you're coming back, aren't you?" he asked, hating how his own voice sounded, halting and hopeful, hated it more when Rodney didn't answer right away.
But at length, Rodney just sighed, long and deep, turning his face into John's neck. "Of course I am." John echoed the sigh with one of his own, endlessly relieved, as Rodney continued, airily: "I quiver to think of what would happen to the city without me there."
"Fire and chaos, obviously," John agreed, smiling. "I'll be amazed if the place is still standing when we get home."
He felt Rodney's lips curve into a smile against his neck. "Well, there's that, too," he said, quietly.
Rodney's arm tightened around his waist, and he whispered: "home."
Something bloomed, brightened, in John's chest, and he wasn't sure what it was because there was just so much of it. All he could do was hold Rodney a little tighter, press a kiss to his temple, and let his eyes fall closed.
"Yeah," he agreed, and that was when the door burst open.
"Hi! Good morning!" Madison greeted them, bouncing onto the bed and tumbling over their legs. "I got a puzzle from Grandma and it's got a thousand pieces and I'm making waffles!"
She was wearing a bright yellow bathrobe and slippers with stuffed monkeys on them. For a second both John and Rodney were too surprised to react, and by the time John's brain had caught up with his eyes and ears he had registered Jeannie standing in the doorway in her own fuzzy blue bathrobe, staring at them in open shock.
There passed a second where Jeannie seemed frozen between one second and the next, one hand half raised at her right hip, her mouth open — Rodney had gone stiff in his arms, and John himself felt a little like if he didn't breathe soon he was going to start turning blue — but then, she smiled.
In fact, she beamed. Her whole face transformed, looking delighted — and slightly evil — and... triumphant? Rodney groaned, a second later, and buried his face in John's shirt. All this time, Madison had been babbling cheerfully about breakfast and John hadn't listened to a word, but when Jeannie spoke, it was in a bright, wobbly voice, and her eyes were shining. "Kaleb's mum gave her a puzzle yesterday, and she wanted your help doing it, Mer," she told them, and Rodney lifted his face just enough to glare at his sister. "Breakfast in a few."
She disappeared down the hallway, and Madison followed, after extracting a promise of help from her uncle. After she shut the door behind her, Rodney dropped his head back to John's shoulder and muttered: "God, things never, ever change."
"Huh?" asked John, finally looking away from the closed door, swallowing back the bubble of hysterical laughter rising in his throat.
"The only time I ever brought a girl home, she walked in on us demanding I read her Green Eggs and Ham for the nine hundredth time. Or maybe it was Horton Hears a Who. I don't remember."
"Killed the mood, huh?"
Rodney snorted. "I wish. It was already pretty much dead when I got verbal diarrhoea on the subject of oral hygiene. Jeannie just buried the corpse by having a tantrum when I told her to leave." He shrugged. "She was five."
"Like mother, like daughter," John snickered.
"Hm," Rodney said, vaguely. "She was just doing it to be a pain. She always wanted me to read to her even though she was perfectly capable of doing it herself." He paused and blinked, looking thoughtful, and then John couldn't hold it in anymore — he laughed until tears were streaming down his face, and Rodney glared at him, but it was a fond glare.
"Come on," he grumbled, getting out of bed and dragging John after him, still giggling. "Apparently there are waffles."
Like most meals in the Miller house, breakfast was a noisy, boisterous affair. As usual Madison monopolized the conversation, dictating what everyone should have on their waffles and dishing out each one as it came hot off of the iron. Rodney ate five, ignoring Jeannie's highly significant enormous smiles and Madison's worshipful expression when he accepted a sixth. Then he ate the blueberries from John's plate, one by one. John did nothing to stop him, just looked at him like he couldn't decide between an annoyed scowl and a fond smile, which of course made Jeannie grin even wider.
After breakfast they were ordered into the living room to conquer one thousand tiny fragments of cardboard, while Jeannie and Kaleb did the dishes. Instead of sinking into the armchair, this time John sat next to Rodney on the couch, still pretending to read his book, pressed into Rodney's side from knee to shoulder.
Rodney kept catching himself smiling for no reason as he and Madison sorted through the box for edge pieces. Twice he went to hand Madison the wrong piece, until finally his niece disgustedly took the box out of his hands and demoted him to the duty of putting in place the pieces she handed him. When Kaleb paused to kiss Madison goodbye on his way out the door, he looked up at the pair of them and offered up a quiet smile and a nod, which made Rodney stutter and drop the piece he was holding and made John smile behind his book, leaning into Rodney as the door clicked shut.
"I think they know," John said in a stage-whisper as Rodney scrabbled under the couch for the puzzle piece, and Rodney let out a choked laugh and said:
The puzzle had four whole sides and a good portion of the top right corner filled in when Jeannie reappeared. Even Rodney didn't notice her right away, but after a second or two he noticed that John had sunk down in the couch, book hiding his face, and turned his head to see his sister leaning in the kitchen doorway, hair pulled back and polka-dotted orange garden gloves on her hands.
The look on her face startled him, no longer beaming and delighted but worried, even guilty. The sun was fully up outside, streaming through the kitchen windows, lighting her from behind. Her hair glowed and her face was shadowed, but he could tell she looked worried. It worried him, too, confused him, because he'd been half-expecting to get chewed out since breakfast, for potentially scarring Madison forever or something, but Jeannie had seemed disturbingly cheerful on that count.
Eventually she straightened, apparently with purpose. "Mer, can I get a hand in the garden for a minute?"
"Oh, but," he said, feeling unaccountably panicked, "we're doing a... a thing."
"Uncle John can help me," Madison said, waving a hand dismissively. "You're just messing it up anyway."
"Traitor," Rodney hissed at her, as John set aside his book and leaned forward to take the puzzle box out of Rodney's hands, pointedly avoiding Jeannie's gaze. Which left Rodney no choice but to get to his feet and follow Jeannie out into the back yard.
It was warm out, but much cooler than the past week had been. Instead of being a force of death and discomfort, sunlight was falling on the grass in yellow patches and dapples, and a cool breeze rustled the leaves. Jeannie left him on the porch with a "wait a minute, I just want to finish this," and picked up the weed-whacker lying on its side next to the flowerbed. Then the quiet was split by the angry buzz of the motor, and Jeannie moved down the edge of the lawn, trimming down the border of the garden.
It took a second for the noise to penetrate, and Rodney was aware of it this time, the dizziness that left him groping for the railing, forcing himself to breathe, reminding himself it wasn't the same, even as the motor stopped abruptly.
Then Jeannie was there, hands on his arms, easing him down to the step, sounding tearful and frantic as she said: "Mer, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I forgot—"
"It's — It's okay," he told her, faintly. "It's not — "
She stripped off her gloves; he heard them hit the porch steps. "I'll get you some water," she said, and before he could protest she was gone, and back again, pushing a cold glass beading with moisture into his hands. "Here," she said, "drink this."
He drank half and then handed it back to her; Jeannie held it for a second, then set it down and pressed cool hands to the sides of his neck, which was odd, but helped.
"You were hurt, weren't you?" she asked, her voice a shaky whisper banded about with iron.
He shook his head, because he hadn't. "Not me." At least not badly. "Other... my people." And that had been so much worse, because there had been nothing he could do.
Jeannie's fingers never stopped moving, circling gently at his temples, watching her own hands instead of his face. "You were trapped somewhere." It wasn't a question, and his eyes flickered curiously up to her face.
"How —" he started to ask, but she just shrugged, as if to say, I have my ways, and: I need to know.
He let out a shallow breath. "I don't know. A day. A really long day." Small words, close together, because it was easier to talk about than it had been yesterday, but it still wasn't easy. Jeannie was patient, though, determined but patient, as if she'd been working herself up to asking for days... which, he realised now, she probably had. Her eyes slid slowly down to meet his, blinking fast.
"Are you okay? I mean..."
And again, he was surprised to find himself nodding, if hesitantly. "I think... yeah. Or, or, getting there."
A minute later he was breathing normally again, eyes closing as Jeannie dipped her fingers in the glass and then drew her fingers across his forehead, then his eyelids, blowing gently into his face, which was, again, oddly nice. The sort of thing he'd imagined other people's mothers doing, something his own mother had never done, meant to communicate safe and loved and mine.
Sometimes he couldn't believe she'd ever forgiven him. He'd done little enough to deserve it.
"Thanks," he whispered, and opened his eyes halfway to take her in — she still looked flushed and guilty. "Where'd you learn that?"
She picked up the glass and offered it to him again. "It's what I do when Maddy's got a fever," she told him. "And it used to help Kaleb after he had his accident; he used to have panic attacks like that."
He was answering indignantly before thinking: "It wasn't a—" And then he stopped. "His what?"
"Kaleb was in a car accident before Maddy was born," Jeannie told him patiently, as he gulped down the rest of the glass of water.
"He was?" Rodney asked, blinking at her, and then, "why didn't I know that?"
Jeannie raised her eyebrows at him. "Because you've been keeping such close track on me for the last few years," she said sarcastically. Apparently she was over feeling guilty.
Rodney flushed. "I'm sorry about that, you know," he said, and meant it. She sighed.
"No, I'm sorry," she told him. "You've already apologised. You don't have to do it again. I'm not really mad at you anymore."
"You're not?" Rodney asked doubtfully. Somehow once, even twice, didn't seem like enough, and he'd rather expected to be paying for it forever. That was what usually happened.
"Not really," she repeated, and added: "Neither is Kaleb."
Now he didn't regret the cynical tone he took. "Oh, yeah?"
She smiled tightly. "He told me you two talked yesterday morning."
"Is that what he said?"
"Please don't be mad at him." Jeannie's mouth twisted. "Mer, when I lost track of you, I was scared. He had to be there for that." She looked down. "I keep meaning to get rid of that decal. But every time I go to do it it's like... I don't know, tempting fate."
His fingers tightened nervously around the glass. "I really am sorry." He winced, realising it was the second time he'd said it in as many minutes.
"Mer." She just rolled her eyes. "You've said. And I've said I forgive you."
He smiled thinly. "Yeah. Just usually I don't get second chances. Usually I get sent to Siberia and that's that."
He looked at her, looked away. "Figuratively speaking."
She was quiet for almost a minute, long enough for Rodney to make out the hum of insects in the bushes, the distant shrieks of children playing the day away. When she did speak again, it was slowly, and with caution. "Is that how you saw it when you went away to school? Like they were getting rid of you?"
He started, answered before he could stop himself, because of all the things he might have expected her to say, that was probably near the bottom of the list: "They were getting rid of me. Dad said so. More than once."
"He was joking, Mer," she said gently. "Just like he was joking about renting your room out to a drifter."
Unexpectedly, he felt angry, and he shook off her hand. "You were seven, Jeannie. How would you know?"
"I was seven, Mer. Not an idiot."
"You were still seven. And they liked you better." It was childish, he knew. But he didn't care.
"Oh, for — " she sounded exasperated. "Mer, they did not like me better."
"Yes!" he burst out, rising from the steps with something twisting deep in his chest. "They did." And the anger was gone as quickly as it had come, to be replaced by a flood of something bleak and weary and puzzling. He hadn't thought about their parents in years, barring one brief flare of challenging bitterness while they'd been Wallace's prisoners. He didn't think about them because it was counterproductive, and because he never wanted to. Because it wouldn't change anything. Because he never knew what to do with how it made him feel. He turned away from her.
"They did," he said again, and meant it when he said: "You were the one they wanted. I can't really... it wasn't your fault, or theirs even, I don't blame anybody but that doesn't mean it wasn't like that." He was distantly amazed to hear his voice the way it sounded right now, faraway and tired and small, but at the same time he couldn't summon enough energy to change it.
"You didn't exactly make it easy for them," Jeannie said after a minute, softly.
"Jeannie, it was always like that," he told her wearily. "You were too little. You don't know. But it was always like that. They were never with me the way they were... with you. They were always... disappointed. You know, before you were born, they fought all the time. They'd scream and throw things and... and you changed them. But they were always the same with me. Like I reminded them of something they didn't want to remember." Like I ruined their lives.
He could have said more, told her how their father had used to greet every academic award with the faintly sarcastic mutter that at least he wasn't working an inferior job for nothing. That their mother had always expressed disappointment in how quiet he was as a child, how shy, how "incapable of affection" — her exact words, repeated often enough, softly enough, until he almost believed it. He didn't tell Jeannie, though, because he knew it would only hurt her, and what they'd said wasn't Jeannie's fault.
He was horrified to realise how thick his voice felt, like there were tears in his eyes, which, all right, there were. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath, defying the impulse because his parents had been dead for twelve years, and they hadn't made him cry since he was fourteen, and he wasn't going to let them do it now. He took another breath, let it out slowly. "You don't know," he said again.
He looked at her; she was fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, looking thoughtful and agonised. "Mum had to leave school when she got pregnant with you," Jeannie said. "Is that why you got so angry when I dropped out?"
Yes, he thought, but he said: "No!"
"You thought I'd resent Maddy like Mum and Dad..." she said, quietly horrified, and raised her eyes to his. "Mer, I would never—"
"I know you wouldn't," he said quickly, wanting nothing more in that moment than to wipe the horror off her face. "I know you wouldn't. I didn't say you would."
"You thought it, though," she murmured, quietly, no longer horrified but deeply, deeply sad.
"I don't think it," he tried to say, but Jeannie was already standing up and wrapping her arms around him, and all he could do was stand there.
"I love you, you know that, right, Mer? Do you understand? I love you," she said, muffled.
"Yeah," he said, because he did, she said it often enough these days.
She stepped back, hands still on his shoulders, and looked at him. "This was what I wanted to talk to you about."
He furrowed his brow. "You wanted to talk about Mum and Dad?" he asked, because she might not have the same reasons to avoid it, but it still wasn't something they did. She never believed him, anyway, and it wasn't like he ever went out of his way to start the conversation.
"No," she said softly, "I wanted to talk about John."
"What about him?" he asked, bewildered by the sudden change in topic, but she just rolled her eyes.
"I thought about Mum and Dad because John asked me about them. And you."
"Uh huh." And then she repeated, slowly: "And I wanted to talk to you about John."
It took a second. Then his face flooded with heat and she nodded, decisively.
"You — oh."
"Well, I guess that answers my question," she said with a smirk. "No wonder you got so twitchy when I asked you about Katie."
"Oh, my god," Rodney muttered, covering his face with his hands.
"Meredith," said Jeannie chidingly, but she was gentle when she pried his hands away from his face. She cupped his face in her hands, and now he could smell the soil on her clothes, the cut grass, and the brightness of her smile made him warm all over, strange because it was still so unfamiliar, at least it had been for a long time. "Meredith. This is the real thing. Isn't it?"
He blinked. "I..." he stammered, "...yes. Yes, I think... I think so." And he wasn't surprised, exactly, but he sort of was. He was smiling before he could control his face — not that he'd ever been very good at that.
Jeannie threw her arms around him again, hugged him so tightly that she drove all the breath out of his lungs. "I'm really happy for you," she said into his shoulder. It was all he could do to pat her on the back, but it was sort of nice, anyway.
"Thanks," he wheezed, as she released him just short of hypoxia.
"Come on," she said, picking up her garden gloves. "You can help me with the vegetable garden."
Rodney was totally thrown off. "I thought that was just a ploy to get me outside!" he said accusingly.
She just smiled sweetly at him. "That doesn't mean it can't also be convenient."
After a moment of hesitation, he followed her to the garden shed, muttering mutinously.
John's been asleep for maybe two hours when he's awoken by a sharp crackle in his ear. His eyes are open in an instant and he's trying to place it, stagger back into the waking world, when he realises he's gone to sleep with his radio on.
"Sheppard? Come on, I know you're there. You sleep like a fish. Obviously you can hear me."
John fumbles for the earpiece, taps it, and asks, groggily: "Rodney?"
On the other end of the radio, Rodney lets out an irritated sigh. "Yes. Are you conscious?" He sounds tense and tired, but not panicky, so John doesn't let his heart rate get up as he rubs the sleep from his eyes.
"I'm conscious. More or less."
"Can..." Rodney hesitates, and then: "Can you come to my quarters? I need to... can you come?"
John glances at his watch. It's a quarter past six, maybe half an hour until dawn, and he'd planned on sleeping late this morning but... whatever. He still hasn't figured out how to break it to Rodney that he's going, that he's not going alone. Maybe inspiration will strike in the next two and a half minutes.
"Yeah. Be right there."
Rodney's quarters aren't far away, at the other end of a long corridor that takes a sharp corner around the main residential sector, and he's standing in front of Rodney's door in exactly one hundred and twenty-six seconds. He knows this because as he was wracking his brain for a good opener, he was counting the steps like a bomb timer.
He waves his hand over the door sensor and it opens for him, obligingly.
Rodney is sitting cross-legged on his bed with his laptop open. This alone is enough to be unusual. Rodney hates working in bed because it says it makes him too inclined to nap — this is patently untrue most of the time, given Rodney's penchant for getting involved in a project and forgetting sleep entirely, but it's never seemed an important enough illusion for John to disabuse him of it. Now, though...
"Aren't you supposed to be resting?" John asks pointedly, as the door whooshes shut behind him.
Rodney looks up, irritably, and says without preamble: "I'm going back to Earth."
John wasn't expecting that, not so bluntly, so it's easy for him to look surprised. "You — what?"
Rodney huffs at him, goes back to typing furiously, and says: "It's been brought to my attention that I — it's just for a few weeks."
"Oh." John's staring, he knows it and can't stop, because it's just dawned on him that Rodney hasn't slept at all, which makes it at least sixty hours since he's really tried, possibly more. "Okay." He's struggling to dredge up anything, looking for the appropriate place in the conversation to drop in the suggestion... but Rodney's making that hard with all his cutting, impatient monosyllabics.
And then Rodney glances up, wariness mixed with uncertainty in his eyes, and says: "So I was wondering, when was the last time you took any leave, anyway?"
"What?" John's still grasping for the trailing thread of this conversation when Rodney adds:
"I know it has to have been pretty much forever. And we haven't got any crises looming just now, right?"
"No," agrees John, carefully, because he's finally caught on. Rodney's making it easy on him, whether he knows it or not. John forces a grin to match Rodney's awful, stilted attempt at casualness. "What'd you have in mind?"
Rodney shrugs, averting his eyes. "I don't know. I'm visiting my sister, apparently. I wasn't given much... I mean, it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, so Vancouver will be... surfing and rock-climbing and all that stuff you like. Really good beer — we have real beer in Canada. Mostly I just don't want to be trapped in a house with Jeannie force-feeding me tofu and an unending litany of my faults as an older sibling." He breaks off with a slightly breathless look, swallows, hitches on the smirk again. "I mean, it's not like you've got anywhere else to go on Earth is it?"
John blinks at him. He's too used to Rodney to take that as anything but a jibe, or for what it really is, which is close to desperation he's showing plain on his face. But John knows he's got to keep up appearances. "Not... as such," he admits, reluctantly.
"Great!" Rodney claps his hands and begins typing again. "We leave tomorrow afternoon."
John frowns, taking in once more the pallor of Rodney's skin, the dark smudges under his eyes, and crosses his arms. They're not fooling each other anyway, he knows, and if Rodney doesn't, he'll work it out soon enough. "Hang on, McKay," he says, and Rodney looks up again, blue eyes wide, clearly surprised that John is still in the room.
"One condition," says John. "You sleep. And now."
"I—" Rodney glares at him, and John smiles. "Fine. In a minute." He flaps a hand impatiently in John's direction while still typing with the other. The gesture means be gone, but John's not having it. He crosses the room in a couple of strides, and reaches out to close Rodney's laptop. Rodney pulls his hand away with a hiss.
"Hey! I was—"
"Rodney," John says, patiently, "was there some part of 'now' that you didn't understand?"
"I just have to finish—"
John shakes his head, holding Rodney's eyes, and finally Rodney relents. "Fine," he says, a little weakly, as John takes the laptop and places it on Rodney's desk at the other side of the room, then turns around and crosses his arms again, expectantly. Rodney's staring at his hands like he doesn't recognise them.
Rodney jumps, looks up again. "I... look, this is going to sound weird, but can I ask you a favour?"
"What's one more?" John shrugs.
Rodney licks his lips, nervously. "I can't... I've been trying to sleep, you know, but I can't seem to... and Keller gave me some..." he waves a hand vaguely towards the bathroom. "I hate sedatives," he says dourly, as it if explains everything.
But it does, sort of. John's not all that fond of being drugged into a stupor himself, but for Rodney it must be like being dead, brain shut down, and maybe that's what's scaring him. Sleep is too close to death, to helplessness, and he's probably had enough of that recently to last him for a good long while. But he has to sleep.
"You want me to stay?" John asks, quietly.
Rodney sags with relief. "If that's... yes? If that's not too weird. I mean I'd understand if you... but right now I really hate the idea of being totally... and having nothing to..."
Nothing to protect me, his face says, though his voice doesn't. John nods, because it's not even a question.
"No problem," he says easily. He goes into the bathroom and comes back with the bottle of pills, hands it to Rodney, who struggles with the cap a minute before downing two capsules with a gulp of water. He pulls off his boots, and throws them on the floor as John settles in the desk chair, slouching down until he's relatively comfortable.
Whatever it is works pretty fast, and by the time Rodney's curled up on his side, his eyelids are already drooping. "Thanks," he says, voice a little slurred. "You don't have to do this and you... you don't have to do this."
John sighs, eyes fixed on Rodney's face as it slackens into sleep for what must be the first time in days. "Don't be an idiot," he murmurs. "Of course I do."
But Rodney doesn't hear him.
They'd put together half the thousand-piece puzzle before John realised that Jeannie had kept Rodney outside for nearly an hour. John noted it, and after another ten minutes had passed, got up to check on them. A glance into the back yard found Rodney huffily pushing a wheelbarrow across the yard as Jeannie trailed after him with a small bag of grass seed. He couldn't hear what either of them was saying, but he could tell it involved a lot of mockery and swearing. John stood at the kitchen window for a while just watching, until Madison came and tugged on his arm.
"I want ice cream," she said decisively, and John glanced at his watch.
"Are you supposed to have ice cream at two-thirty in the afternoon?" he asked, tilting his head down at her.
Madison opened her mouth to answer indignantly, as if offended at the implication she would do something illegal, but then she shut her mouth again and looked up at him through her eyelashes, with a sly smile.
"I'm not supposed to get snacks without asking. That's what Mummy says."
"I'll bet that's exactly what Mummy says," he laughed, and glanced out the window again. It looked like Jeannie and Rodney would be out there for another half-hour, at least, and he'd always believed that the immorality of most illegal things was directly proportionate to the likelihood of getting caught.
"Okay," he said, and then hushed her when she let out a whoop of delight. "But quiet, okay? This is secret ice cream. Your mother yells."
"Oh, I know," Madison said, seriously. "She's louder than anybody else's mother." She sounded proud.
So he and Madison put together two truly decadent bowls of ice cream, complete with chocolate syrup, strawberry syrup, banana syrup, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate chips, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and in Madison's bowl, a handful of Froot Loops. John topped it off with a spray of whipped cream and wondered vaguely why health nuts like Jeannie and Kaleb would keep all this junk food lying around. This led to John imagining secret midnight ice cream conspiracies he decided not to share with Madison because she might get it into her head to start investigating, and that was one game he didn't want to end up explaining to Jeannie.
It felt a little strange, sitting here eating illicit ice cream with a five-year-old in Rodney's sister's kitchen, but strange in a way that three weeks of repetition had made seem almost routine. Strange in a way he was finding he could easily get used to, if given half the chance. Strange like from the second he'd walked in the door with Rodney, Jeannie and Kaleb and Madison had just accepted him as belonging there.
As he watched Madison carefully separate her ice cream into single topping zones, something caught in his chest, constricted, for just a second, until Madison looked up at him with a funny look on her face. "What's the matter, Uncle John?"
"Nothing, Mad," he said, shaking his head. And that was it, he'd realised. He now knew what they'd assumed - what Jeannie had assumed, at least - but what it came down to was that if he was with Rodney, he belonged, because Rodney belonged here, at least sometimes. He couldn't believe it had taken him three weeks to realise they'd been treating him like family.
John had never gone looking for family. His own blood relatives had never afforded him any real sense of belonging, at least not after his mother died, after he left home; just a sense of obligation, which wasn't the same thing.
And Rodney, though he clearly had painful memories of his own family, still felt connected to them. Tied to them, maybe, against his will, maybe, but still, connected. Like it was something irrefutable, enough that rejection had hurt in a completely different way than John's father rejecting him had hurt. He'd never recognised that kind of connection by intention, never nodded his head and said oh, that's what that's like. But he realised now that he'd had it, anyway, with Ronon and Teyla, in progressive fits and starts... and with Rodney, from the first week of their acquaintance. Like some part of him had recognised in Rodney something that fit them together, something he couldn't control or direct. Something that was just supposed to be.
Well, that's sappy, he thought, and realised that he was wearing a huge, stupid grin only when Madison looked up and smiled back, sticky-faced. She cocked her head at him. "You're smiling, Uncle John. Are you happy?"
John looked down, feeling almost like he'd been caught at something, but still smiling. "Yeah, Mad," he said. "I'm happy."
"I thought so," she said, sagely, and he glanced up to see her resting her chin in one hand and observing him with the penetrating, unblemished wisdom of the very young.
"Loving people makes you happy," she told him, like it was just that simple.
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