Entry, Descent and Landing

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“The gate’s not working,” Rodney huffs, entering the mess with a scowl on his face. He's clearly personally offended by this turn of events.

“Eh, I’m sure you’ll fix it.” John currently has more pressing issues to consider, like whether he can reasonably have fruit loops for lunch or whether he should eat some vegetables like an adult.

He picks up the fruit loops.

“I’m serious!” Rodney is all fidgety, talking and waving his hands instead of eating, and that’s never a good sign. “There’s something very wrong with it, and I have no idea why.”

John raises an eyebrow. It’s not often that McKay admits there’s something he doesn’t understand. And without the gate, they are vulnerable.

Regretfully, he puts the fruit loops back. “Alright. Why don’t you show me what the problem is?”

The gate will accept an address, and it spins and dials as normal. But when it should open a wormhole with a whoosh and a ripple of blue light, it simply stops dead. The lights fade out and it shuts itself off.

Huh.

“It’s been like this since we tried to dial New Athos for a check in.” A frown creases Rodney’s forehead. “Hand me that scanner, will you?”

They spend the day poking and prodding at the gate and the control consoles - or, more accurately, Rodney pokes and John swings his legs off the side of the console and provides unhelpful but, he thinks, amusing commentary - but there’s nothing to indicate a problem. No fried circuits, no missing components, none of the usual error warnings which appear when the gate runs into a problem. It just… doesn’t work.

They work through the afternoon, and by the time eight p.m. rolls around John is ready to call it a night and start again tomorrow. But before he can suggest they get some dinner, the gate whirs to life and begins to dial.

“Did you do that?” he asks Rodney, but he already knows the answer is no by the look of confusion on Rodney’s face.

The gate spins as if to dial but it doesn’t connect. It merely sits there, illuminated but inactive, and then -

John wakes up in his quarters.

That’s weird. He’s disoriented, and woozy, and he feels a headache creeping at the back of his skull.

He shakes it off. He probably just needs some food. He heads to the mess and is sitting down to eat when -

“The gate’s not working,” Rodney huffs.

John squints at him. “Again?”

“What do you mean, again?” Rodney waves him aside impatiently. “There’s something very wrong with it, and I have no idea why.”

A cold chill settles at the bottom of John’s stomach. “I know, Rodney. We had this conversation yesterday.”

“What are you talking about? Of course we didn’t. The gate only stopped working today.”

Rodney insists that he has no memory of the gate breaking, and neither does anyone else they talk to. It's like the previous day has simply disappeared.

The more he insists that he remembers it, the more Rodney turns from dismissive to concerned, until he marches him down to see Carson and okay, that's not the worst idea under the circumstances.

Carson checks him over, determines he's physically fine, and tells him it's probably just déjà vu. But that can't be right. It was so real.

Rodney keeps shooting him these worried looks, and that's definitely not helping. So he brushes it off and suggests they get back to fixing the gate. It is, after all, still broken.

They spend another few hours on that, opening up the consoles in the gate room and looking for any faulty hardware. Soon enough it's dinner time, and he's going to suggest heading to the mess when the gate spins up again, and oh shit -

He wakes up in his quarters. He frantically scrambles for his watch and sees that it reads two p.m.

This is definitely not déjà vu.

He heads straight to the gate room. The gate techs are antsy.

"Sheppard, you're here, good." Rodney enters, a tablet tucked under one arm. “We've got a problem. The gate’s not working."

They try to fix the gate again, with no more success than the last two attempts. John keeps checking his watch.

Maybe it's different now. Maybe he's changed enough to stop the day repeating.

At exactly right p.m., his sunny, perhaps delusional, optimism is shattered.

The gate starts dialing.

He wakes up in his quarters.

He sends Rodney off to consult with Zelenka and takes matters into his own hands.

He tries everything he can think of to dial the gate - dialing different addresses, dialing it at different times, even removing and replacing the control crystal in his famed “turn it off and turn it on again” approach to computer repair - but nothing works.

He tries taking a puddle jumper and flying out to the mainland, and into space, and as far around the planet as he can get. No matter how far he travels, at exactly eight p.m. he resets and wakes up back in his quarters.

Six hours is simply not enough time to solve whatever the hell is going on here

He tries explaining his situation to Elizabeth, to Teyla and Ronon, to Lorne, to Carson. Even when people are willing to entertain the notion of a time loop, no one knows how to address the problem, let alone suggest a solution. At best, they seem to be humoring him. At worst, they seem to think it’s his apparently inevitable slide into paranoia.

After trying everyone on the base he has even a passing relationship with, he gives up telling anyone. They can’t help him.

He overrides the city’s power usage limits and tries to dial up Earth. The gate still won’t dial, and he overloads the ZPM, and the entire city is plunged into darkness.

He wakes up in his quarters.

He used to love it here, his own little corner of the strange place that is his home. Now it feels like a prison.

He tries to make contact with the Athosians, or with the Manarians, or even with the Genii. But without the gate, his radio transmissions will take years to reach them. He sits by the radio anyway, listening to the crackling static and waiting for a reply he knows will never come.

Maybe he's trapped in a virtual reality, or his mind is being probed by aliens. It wouldn't be the first time.

Maybe none of this is real.

He stands on one of the city’s most distant piers, staring out into the ocean. It’s quiet here, now he’s turned off his radio and tweaked the lifesigns detector so it can’t track him. He watches the waves, the same today as they were yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. He considers his options.

He puts a gun to his temple and counts down from five.

He wakes up in his quarters.

He bangs on the lab door and tries one more time to convince Rodney to help him.

“A time loop is not impossible,” he grits out. “It happened at the SGC.” He knows Rodney has read the file.

“That’s because there was an Ancient artifact involved.” Rodney sounds haughty. “Have you touched any strange Ancient artifacts recently, Colonel?”

John breathes between clenched teeth and shakes his head.

“So. Time just spontaneously started resetting itself, did it?”

“How should I know? All I know is that I have woken up in my quarters a hundred times by now, and every day at eight p.m. the loop resets itself.”

“Why are you the only one this is happening to?”

“I don’t know!” he yells. “I have no idea what terrible sin I’m being punished for here! I’ve made my share of mistakes in my life, but nothing that deserves this.”

Rodney stops moving and looks at him -- really looks.

“Jesus, Sheppard.” Rodney’s brow creases. “You’re not okay, are you?”

John slumps. He can’t summon the energy to deny it. “Not even remotely.”

For some reason, this seems to be what pushes Rodney into taking him seriously. He nods, once, sharply. “What can I do to help?”

He looks at his watch. It’s ten minutes to eight.

“Tell me a secret,” he says.

Rodney gives him a disdainful look. “What is this, a tween girls’ slumber party?”

He grits his teeth. “I spent the entire day trying to convince you what’s happening to me is real. I don’t have time to do that every loop. I need you to tell me something no one else knows, so next time I can convince you I’m not crazy or playing around and we can fix this.”

He sees Rodney’s mind working. He can tell he knows John is right and he’s considering options of what to tell him: details about his childhood, his research, his time here on Atlantis, and discarding each one. For all his faults, Rodney does not dissemble. His life is an open book, and for this to work John needs to know something truly private.

“Alright,” Rodney says eventually. He tilts his chin up and straightens his shoulders like he’s bracing himself for incoming fire. “When I was fifteen, there was a boy at school a couple of years older than me. His name was Mikey Haynes.”

“Have you touched any strange Ancient artifacts recently, Colonel?” Rodney asks with the same look of superiority he always has. “Because that’s the only way-”

“McKay,” he interrupts.

“- and why would you be the only one affected, that doesn’t make sense-”

“Rodney!”

Rodney stops. Something in the tone of his voice has broken through.

“I know about Mikey Haynes,” he says.

Rodney goes very pale and John can feel the anxiety radiating off him in waves.

“How do you know that name?” his voice is barely above a whisper.

“Because you told me, Rodney. In the last loop.”

For a few seconds Rodney stares at him, eyes wild and arms wrapped protectively around his chest. Eventually he gives one, sharp nod.

“Alright. You’re stuck in a time loop. What are we going to do about it?”

He has that conversation with Rodney every single loop. It is, without exception, the worst part of each one. Even feeling himself die wasn’t this awful.

He and Rodney have run every test they can think of. He’s been subjected to medical tests and genetic tests, they’ve scanned him for nanites and viruses and alien mind control, and they’ve turned up nothing. He is, by all accounts, completely healthy -- other than the fact he’s reliving the same six hours over and over and over and over.

“Maybe the problem isn’t with me,” he says. He chews over the idea and it seems plausible. “Maybe the problem is with the city.”

“What?”

“What if I’m not the one being looped through time? What if you are, and I’m the only one who’s aware of it?”

“So you’re sane and everyone else is crazy?”

“Yes.” He folds his arms over his chest. “Maybe my ATA gene gives me some protection against the effect, I don’t know.”

He ignores the griping. “If I’m right, the problem is even worse than I thought. The whole city, even the whole planet could be stuck in the loop. What’s happening to our allies while we’re stuck? How far have the Wraith advanced across this galaxy without us to keep them in check.”

Rodney swallows, the gravity of the situation finally hitting him.

“There must be a clue in the city sensors,” he says, pushing bits of drone aside to access the whiteboard in his lab. “If the reset is at the same time, there might be a preceding energy burst we can detect.”

“What good will that do?” John is too tired to think straight. “I know when the loop is going to reset.”

“Because if we know what type of energy it is, we can understand what’s causing it.”

John throws up his hands. Sure, why not. It's not like he's in a hurry or anything.

Rodney pokes through the sensor data, making little hmm noises which he finds unreasonably aggravating.

“See!” Rodney has his smuggest expression on, the one that simultaneously says I told you so and I know you find me charming. “Here, just before the gate failed to connect, there’s a small anomaly in the readings. It looks like… Interesting. It looks like ionizing radiation.”

“What does that mean?”

Rodney’s brow creases. “I’m not sure. There’s a spike of gamma and X-rays as the gate tries to connect. But I have no idea what the source is.”

John barely has time to let out a frustrated breath before the loop resets.

He hurries back to Rodney’s lab and points him to the sensor data.

“Interesting,” Rodney says again. “It looks like ionizing radiation.”

John exhales. “Yeah. You said that last time.”

He doesn’t need to eat, or sleep. His body resets with every loop. And yet, his mind has frayed. He hasn’t rested in so long, his thoughts are a jumbled mess.

He takes a loop off. He goes to the gym and spars with Ronon. His muscles are fresh but his strategy is a disaster; Ronon unsurprisingly wipes the floor with him. All the same, it feels good to stretch and move; to worry about avoiding a flying elbow instead of his sorry fate for a while.

Then he has dinner with Teyla. He doesn’t know how many loops it’s been since he ate, and even though he doesn’t need the sustenance he realizes he has been missing the sensory experience of it, and the camaraderie of a shared meal.

He tells Teyla about the time loop, casually, like it’s not a big deal, and she doesn’t seem convinced he’s telling the truth but she doesn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand either, and he loves her for that.

“If that were the case,” her head tilts to one side, thoughtful, “it would be a kind of opportunity, would it not?”

“If time were to always reset itself, you could do anything you wish, without having to consider the consequences.” She shrugs. “Many have wished for such a chance.”

Huh. He never thought about it that way before.

Next loop, he steals a jumper and takes it for a joyride, zipping away from Atlantis and out into the solar system.

He pulls a reckless slingshot maneuver around the third planet out and is sent hurtling toward the star at the heart of the system, traveling so fast the jumper shakes and rattles even with the inertial dampeners. Elizabeth screams at him over the comms and he flips them off.

He approaches the sun at breakneck speed and the temperature in the cabin begins to rise. He swoops low into the sun’s corona, arcs of plasma leaping up around him, even more wild and ferocious than he expected. The sensors scream out warnings about hull temperature and radiation levels and he ignores them, absorbed in the way the jumper dives and banks.

He plunges closer, seeing the star’s surface bubble and erupt, then pulls up in a wild loop and swings down closer still: through the corona and into the chromosphere, the space around him transformed into wild hues of pink, shot through with filaments of white hot gas which snap and twist around him.

In the moment before the jumper is destroyed, as alarms blare and the air rushes out through cracks in the hull, his vision is filled with the surface of the sun. It is entrancing, covered in cells of red and orange and yellow, molten and changing and blindingly, blindingly bright.

He records a message for his father and uploads it to the queue to be sent back to Earth. “Dad,” he begins. “I want you to tell you something, something I’ve been meaning to say for a long time. From the very bottom of my heart: Go fuck yourself.”

He knows it’ll be heard by the gate techs, if not the entire expedition. That somehow makes it even more satisfying.

“You’re an explosives expert, right?”

“Technically it’s high temperature and energetic materials technology,” she grins, “but close enough.”

“Awesome. Where do you keep the good stuff?”

She raises an eyebrow.

“You know. The really fun explosives they don’t let the field teams use.”

“Oh, that good stuff. Right this way.”

They spend an afternoon testing the structural integrity of the city’s farthest piers (not as good as you might think), seeing what happens when you strap C4 to a naquadah generator (an extremely large explosion), and enjoying the simple pleasures of tossing prototype grenades into the ocean (the water sprays rainbows across the sky as it is thrown miles into the air, and it falls on them like rain as they laugh).

He tells Lorne that he’s gay. Lorne doesn’t miss a beat.

“Yes, sir,” he says, entirely unperturbed. “I figured.”

He leaves a message for Nancy.

He tells her he’s sorry, that he knows he was a bad husband, that it wasn’t fair the way he treated her. He tells her that she deserved better, that he wishes her well, that he hopes she’s happy, and he means it.

He feels lighter the moment he's finished. He wonders why he never did this before the loop.

He’s struck by a genius idea, and he busts open a few locks and drags the ascension machine out of storage. Sure, it nearly killed Rodney, but maybe he’ll get lucky. Nothing to lose at this point, right?

The moment the light envelops him, he knows he’s made a terrible mistake.

Within minutes his skin is peeling away to reveal hard, blue scales beneath. The sunlight becomes unbearable. He turns the lights out and feels his way by sound instead.

He doesn’t remember much beyond that. There are only brief flashes in his mind: cold metal beneath his claws, horrified screams reverberating in a corridor, the effortlessness of scuttling up the side of a tower, the crunch of bones cracking between his mandibles.

He locks himself in his quarters for a few loops after that.

After a while his guilt is outweighed by his boredom. He picks up the guitar that has been primarily decorative thus far and learns to play Folsom Prison Blues.

Time keeps dragging on, indeed.

Eventually, as seems to be inevitable, he ends up coming back to Rodney.

"Sheppard." Rodney gives him a quick nod. "What can I do for you?"

There are a million answers to that question, and none of them are appropriate for work.

He considers the juxtaposition: Rodney's cool greeting with the way he's bouncing on the balls of his feet, all coiled excitement and nervousness. That's how Rodney often is around him, now he thinks about it.

Is it interest or intimidation? Fondness or annoyance? He's never been good at parsing emotions, and that's been a frequent source of frustration. Now it's particularly acute.

"You want some coffee?" Rodney offers, like an olive branch. "I'm sure we've got a clean mug around here somewhere."

John does not want coffee.

How many times has he thought about this? Too many to count. And how many more chances will he have?

What the hell, he thinks. Teyla was right. He'll never get a better opportunity than this.

He steps forward and puts a tentative hand around the back of Rodney's neck. He hears his breath catch. He rubs the soft hair there between his fingers, watches the blush rise on his cheeks. It's an enticing look.

Slowly, carefully, he leans in and kisses him, uncertain even though he knows the loop will reset, because this is bigger than some silly irresponsible behavior; this is him putting his heart in Rodney's fidgety hands and hoping against hope it won't be crushed.

For a moment Rodney freezes, and John is already formulating frantic apologies when Rodney mouths, "Oh god, finally," against his lips and wraps his arms around his shoulders, yanking him closer and kissing him hot and hard.

It's easy as anything to slip his hands under Rodney's thighs and to lift him onto the workbench, even while Rodney attempts to distract him by unbuttoning his shirt and biting a line along his collar bone.

He fucks Rodney over the bench in his lab, and next time on a balcony overlooking the city, and after that on Elizabeth’s desk. He learns every inch of his body; the soft plump of his thighs, the way he likes to be jerked off nice and slow, the sensitive patch of skin behind his ear.

For loops and loops, he does nothing else. Rodney never turns him down, not once. No matter where he is or what he’s doing, he’ll drop everything to be with him, and John has no idea what to make of that.

(Yes he does, but it's too big and too terrifying to look at directly, so he puts it aside.

It can wait. He has nothing but time.)

The first time he gets Rodney to fuck him, he bursts into fat, ugly tears afterwards and Rodney wraps a blanket around him and pets his hair. They stay like that for hours, Rodney holding him and for once not speaking, letting the waves of need and desperation and loneliness ebb and flow as they will, giving the simple comfort of his presence.

Sometimes he tells him about the loop, sometimes not. It doesn’t seem to make much difference to Rodney. Even when he explains nothing, just walks up to him and kisses him, Rodney kisses him back just as hungrily as ever.

And when they’re not fucking, they’re talking. He learns that Rodney has always wanted to learn to paint. He misses his cat (no, really. It’s not funny.) The one person on the base he is most afraid of is Elizabeth, because he secretly suspects she might be smarter than he is.

John tells him about why he doesn’t talk to his family, and about how out of place he always felt in the military. That he likes turkey sandwiches because they’re what his college roommate made for him when he first left home and had to learn to get by on not much money.

Each day, he learns more about Rodney and shares more about himself. And then the loop resets, and he has to walk into the lab and see Rodney regard him coolly and say, “Sheppard,” like that’s all they are to each other.

He misses him, and that sounds insane because he's spent practically every waking hour with the man for what must have been weeks. But he is moving forward and Rodney is staying still. Every time the loop resets, they drift further apart.

He stops sleeping with Rodney.

He gets back to work.

He pulls up the city sensor data and brings it to the lab.

“Here, look. You said before there was a radiation spike.”

Rodney drums his fingers against the tablet. “Yeah, there is. And it looks,” he squints, “sort of familiar.”

“What could cause that?”

“A million things. Radioactive materials. Black holes. Coronal mass ejections. Lightning, if there’s enough of it.”

“Wait, wait wait.” Something important scratches at his mind. “Coronal mass ejections, as in, from stars?”

“Yes. The magnetic fields inside a star shift as material moves in its interior, and when a prominence is formed and collapsed, the star releases a burst of plasma.”

He snaps his fingers. “That’s it! The sun in this solar system, we know it’s periodically unstable, right? And it’s even more active than usual right now.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

He thinks of the arcs of plasma he saw as he dove the jumper into the sun’s corona and decides against trying to explain that. “It’s not important. But we know the stargate has sent Earth teams through time when the wormhole passed too close to a coronal mass ejection, right? What if our stargate had the same problem?”

“That might send whoever was traveling through the gate through time, but it wouldn’t make time loop.” A light flickers in Rodney’s eyes. “Oh! Oh! Unless that’s why the gate failed. It tried to send an outgoing wormhole at the exact moment that the sun’s activity peaked. When the wormhole hit the coronal mass ejection, it bounced back to its origin, carrying its energy with it. And that would mean…” He taps frantically at his tablet. “Right! That spike of radiation is the effect of the outgoing and incoming wormholes colliding, forming a resonance wave. All that energy is forming ripples which must be throwing us through spacetime.”

“Great! So can you fix it?”

Rodney blinks. “I’m not even sure I can model what’s happening, let alone fix it. The mathematical equations alone will be weeks of work.”

“We don’t have weeks, Rodney. We have -” he checks his watch, “- just over half an hour before the loop resets and we lose everything.”

Despair starts crawling up his spine, but he shouldn’t have underestimated the sheer stubbornness of Rodney McKay.

“Well then.” Rodney sits him down and shoves a notebook and pen into his hands. “Looks like you’re going to have to learn some math and help me to remember.”

This is his routine now: Wake up in his quarters, run to the lab, talk Rodney through the problem as fast as he can, get lectured on astrophysics and mathematical modelling until he feels like his head is going to explode, repeat.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

He gets the basics down quickly but there are still pages and pages of math for them to solve, and nowhere close to enough time to figure it out in one loop. So he learns, and remembers, and does his best to save himself.

Rodney explains it well when he’s not being a jerk, and John starts to understand why he likes this work.

He hasn’t done this much math since college, and it’s not as awful as he remembers. There’s a kind of beauty to it, actually, a balance of all the relevant variables quantified and described, their relationships mapped into symbols and equations, the logically clarity of a necessarily true fact.

“See, this variable here, this represents the duration of the outgoing wormhole.” Rodney taps the whiteboard. John stares at the way his hands dance over the numbers. “And this one here, this is the distance between Lantea and its sun...”

Each loop, he learns a little more. Eventually, he understands the equations Rodney has been scribbling for the past god knows how many loops.

Now they just need to actually figure out how to solve them.

“That equation is wrong.”

“What? No it isn’t. I worked that out myself.” Rodney is glaring at him like he insulted his mother.

“I’m telling you, Rodney. Look.” John uses the cuff of his shirt to wipe out a corner of the equations scribbled on the whiteboard. “This is assuming we’re still operating in base 10, but we know the gate operating system is partially in base 16.” He adds in the corrected figures as he goes. “So we need to convert it to polynomial here and here before we can compare the output to the data from our solar radiation readings, then we can figure out the coronal mass ejection’s effects on both the gate and our computers simultaneously and allow for the difference.”

Rodney is squinting at the whiteboard. “That’s… Huh. That might actually be right.” He steps closer, running his fingers beneath the figures John has changed. Then he wheels and rounds on John.

You,” he says, pointing a finger at John’s chest. “You are a genius.”

And then he’s grabbing John’s shirt and hauling him close and kissing him, wild and messy and with great enthusiasm.

And John had told himself he wasn’t going to do this any more but this is different, Rodney had kissed him this time, and with the way Rodney’s hands are scrabbling at every piece of skin he can reach he doesn’t think he could stop himself anyway.

Afterwards, once they’ve wasted far too much of this loop to get any productive work done, John tells Rodney about all the times that they’ve done this before, and that this is the first time Rodney has been the one to instigate it.

Rodney shrugs. “What can I say? A man who knows his math really gets me going.”

John hides a smile. “You only want me for my brain, huh?”

“Yes,” Rodney says, like that’s obvious. He breaks into a grin and runs a hand through John’s hair. “And the hair, of course. That’s very important.”

“Mmhmm.” John stretches lazily across the sofa in the corner of the lab. “And the rest of me?”

Rodney gives him a sly look. “I guess that’s alright too.”

And then Rodney is giggling as John wrestles him to the sofa as well, and he’s all flying elbows and poking fingers until John gets him pinned beneath him, both of them sweaty and out of breath from laughter.

Oh, thinks John. So this is what happiness feels like. He’d almost forgotten.

The loop is about to end, though this one feels different.

They're lying squashed together on the too-small sofa, inelegantly draped around each other, when Rodney takes his hand. “You have to tell me,” he says. “We’re about to reset, and once we've fixed this and I've forgotten again, you have to tell me how you feel.”

His gut churns. It’s so much simpler to be together when he doesn’t have to think about the consequences.

“Promise me,” Rodney says. “It’s not fair that I should finally get what I’ve wanted for so long, and not be able to remember it.”

He thinks about how he feels each time Rodney is reset: the loss, the ache of it. He tries to imagine what it would be like to have those experiences erased entirely.

“Okay.” He squeezes Rodney’s hand. “I promise.”

“That’s it!” Rodney beams at the whiteboard, covered from top to bottom in dense equations. “I can’t believe we got that done so fast.”

John lets out a sound that might be considered a laugh.

“Ah.” Rodney looks at him sideways. “You’ve been working on this for a while, huh?”

“You could say that, yeah.”

“Well, good news. Now we’ve got the wormhole modeled, we can feed this data into the dialing device and reset the gate manually.”

“And that will stop the loop?”

“I sure as hell hope so, because it’s the only idea I’ve got.”

“Terrific.”

John makes a conscious effort to stop his leg from bouncing anxiously as Rodney loads up their data into the dialing device.

He checks his watch. It’s three minutes to eight.

This is going to work. Right? This has to work. He’s put everything he has into this fix and he honestly doesn’t know if he can cope with looping one single time more.

(He’s thought that so many times before. And yet, here he is, still, willing or not.)

“We need to get the timing just right,” Rodney informs the gate techs. He’s taken over the gate room and thankfully the entire base has learned not to get in McKay’s way when he has that steely look in his eye. “We need to engage the program at exactly the moment the incoming wormhole is set to arrive.”

Two minutes to eight. Adrenaline surges, and he wants to run or to fight, but there’s nothing he can do except watch the furrow in Rodney’s brow and the agitated tapping of his fingers against the Ancient keypad.

“Alright, Chuck, ready on my command.”

Rodney’s got this, he tells himself. They’ve got this.

One minute to eight.

“Now!” Chuck sits up straighter, focused on the instruments in front of him. Rodney taps at the keypad, attention narrowed down to the rapidly scrolling code on his screen.

The lights flicker, spluttering overhead and casting the gate room in an eerie disjointed light. The gate starts to rotate, the screeching noise louder than usual, the illuminated symbols seeming to glow more brightly.

There is a moment of absolute stillness, and then -

The whoosh of the outgoing wormhole connecting is the most beautiful sound he's ever heard. He can get out, he can be free, he can live. He doesn't have to be alone any more.

Blood rushes to his head in great waves and makes him dizzy, like this might all be an illusion, like it might disappear at any moment.

He checks his watch. It's two minutes past eight.

He lets out a hysterical peal of laughter, staggers away from the gate controls, and passes out.

He wakes up not in his quarters. The antiseptic smell of the infirmary is the sweetest breath of fresh air.

Elizabeth insists he needs medical supervision, but there's no chance of keeping a hoard of curious scientists away from an oddity like the man who looped through time. So he's in an infirmary bed being gently grilled about the experience by Zelenka, who has apparently been elected their representative.

Elizabeth does her best to project an air of calm as she asks, "Is there any way to know how long we were looping for?"

Zelenka pushes his glasses up on the bridge of nose. "It is hard to say for certain, but extrapolating the current season based on the length of the days, we must have lost around six months."

"Six months?" Elizabeth turns to him, aghast. "John, I can't even imagine."

She means well, but he can't handle pity right now. He plays it off casually, with a wink and a smile. "Trust me, you don't want to." He swings his legs off the side of the bed and calls out to Carson. "Doc, I'm good to leave, right? Pretty sure I'm healthy as a horse, and I've given the research team plenty of material to work with."

Carson looks him over, takes in the weary lines of his shoulders, and eventually nods. He always was perceptive. "Aye, alright. But stop back in tomorrow for a checkup."

"Sure thing. Now if you'll all excuse me, I'm looking forward to a well deserved night off."

He is looking forward to a night off, but the very last place he wants to wake up tomorrow is in his quarters. He'd sooner sleep on one of the piers, or in the locker room, or on a hive ship. Anywhere but there.

But there's another option. Or at least, there might be. So he finds himself fidgeting outside Rodney's door.

The door opens while he's pacing back and forth in the corridor.

"Sheppard?' Rodney blinks at him. "I was just on my way to find you. Earlier you seemed… so I thought… well, this must have been hard for you. What are you doing in the hallway?"