The shield was offline. They hadn’t used it for several weeks, but now they couldn’t use it; if the Wraith decided to come calling they were sitting ducks. It wasn’t simply offline, but changing somehow—new code being added from... somewhere. Zelenka didn’t think it looked like a virus, but that was the most he could or would say as he dashed around the control room, pulling crystals and powering down equipment.
Simpson nearly dropped a burned-out crystal as Zelenka tossed it to her. Her fingers looked raw, nails bitten to the quick. Miko of course seemed ready to burst into tears at any moment, though she worked quietly and efficiently. John didn’t recognize any of the other scientists, didn’t know their names, didn’t care if he ever learned them.
It was useless, even John could see that. The scientists were getting nowhere—except maybe in each other’s way. McKay would have been able to fix the problem, but McKay had been dead for almost a month now.
“Do I evacuate?” It seemed polite to at least pretend he wanted Elizabeth’s input. John was military commander; this was his call. He’d already made up his mind.
“I think perhaps we should give them a little more time.” Elizabeth’s voice was carefully modulated. She was trying not to provoke him, John realized, even in the middle of a crisis.
Too bad. Civilian personnel were gating to the Alpha site in an hour. He’d just opened his mouth to inform Elizabeth of his decision when the gateroom gave a slight shudder and there was the familiar sound of the shield powering up.
Zelenka said something in rapid Czech and dashed to the nearest console. “The shield is working,” he added pointlessly in English, a note of wonder in his voice.
“Radek?” asked Elizabeth.
“Working,” he repeated. “And... stronger. By twelve percent, according to the readings.”
Elizabeth seemed to want to ask more, but John knew there was only one question that mattered. “Have we been breached?”
Zelenka checked the readout. “No,” he said cautiously. “Whatever did this to the shield came from within Atlantis.”
Not a military problem then. Probably something to do with the changes the Ancients had made to the city when they’d been in possession. Let Science deal with it.
John nodded to two Marines. Keep an eye on the situation.
They nodded back an acknowledgment. John turned on his heel and left without a backwards glance.
“What should we talk about today?” he asked, making his tone as cheerfully grating as possible.
“I was thinking, your dead best friend?”
“No one,” he said, settling on the couch, “likes a person with a one-track mind.”
“You’ve been thinking about other things, then?” Kate asked. “Like what?”
John sighed. He had three more of these mandatory sessions, and provoking Heightmeyer didn’t gain him anything. He’d been through this before, more than once. He knew the best strategy was to play the game: be sad, but not too sad. Show you missed your teammate, but could still be effective.
Something about Kate’s pretty blonde blandness had always gotten under his skin, though. Rodney had liked her, had claimed to get a lot out of their sessions. John realized he was making a fist, too-long nails biting into his palm, and forced himself to relax.
“McKay liked you,” he said finally.
“I liked him.”
“I think it was mostly the blonde hair and the tits.”
“He said he liked the red, too,” she replied mildly.
John looked at Kate. Her hair was red. He’d been seeing her for three weeks; had it been that color the whole time?
He was suddenly exhausted. Baiting Heightmeyer was juvenile and unproductive. She’d be reporting back to Elizabeth, after all. “What do you want to know?”
“How have you been feeling?”
“Angry,” he replied, knowing this was the right answer. It also had the advantage of being the truth.
“Myself. Carson. The Ancients. Mostly the Ancients for building something as stupid as an Ascension machine in the first place.”
“Are you angry at Rodney?”
“No!” The answer slipped out before he could catch himself. Damn it, he knew you were supposed to be angry at the dead person. The doctors always expected it. Well, maybe he could pretend to be mad at Rodney next week.
“But you’re angry at the Ancients?”
John knew there was a trap here somewhere, but he couldn’t see it. “Yeah.” He shrugged. “Why build something that, you know, kills you if you can’t Ascend? Seems like a pretty big design flaw.”
“You’d rather Rodney had Ascended?”
“Than died? Yeah.”
“Wouldn’t he be lost to you either way?”
“If he’d Ascended he could have come back... If he’d wanted to.”
And there was the trap. John bit his lip, annoyed at himself.
“You’re afraid he would have wanted to stay on the higher plane? That he wouldn’t have wanted to come back? To... Atlantis?”
To you? John heard the unspoken question clearly. He took a breath. “What difference does it make?” Shit. That wasn’t what he’d meant to say. “Rodney didn’t Ascend, he died. I scattered his ashes myself. I know he’s not coming back, and I know it’s not because of me. Okay?” He stood. “Are we done here?”
She didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow at his outburst. “If you want to be.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think I do.”
At least his endurance was improving. He was running ten miles a day now. More if he ran with Ronon in the morning. He never even felt it until somewhere around mile eight.
Then the burn came, and he started hearing the echo of his strides on Atlantis’ cold floors. Pound. Pound. This was what he waited for; the time in his run when he felt disconnected from his body. It was almost the only time these days he could think clearly.
He’d stopped by one of the labs before his run to check on Corporal Terry. That was going well, he thought. Not that you’d know it from the way the scientists were behaving, glaring at John with resentment they didn’t bother trying to hide. That was too damn bad. It wasn’t like they were under guard; Terry and the other Marines were there for their protection.
Pound. Pound. John had suspended exploration of the abandoned labs until further notice, and had put a Marine in every lab that was already in use, with orders to take guinea pig duty and fall on any piece of Ancient tech that was metaphorically or literally ticking. John wasn’t stupid; he knew it was too late to save McKay, and he knew that Rodney would never have stood for a military presence in the labs, but Rodney wasn’t here. John was, and he’d keep the civilians safe. They could resent him as much as they wanted; he’d been resented by better people than a few pasty biologists.
Perspiration was streaming freely now, wetting his hair, soaking through his t-shirt. It always took a long time to work up a sweat in the perfectly climate-controlled corridors, and it felt good. Pound. Pound. Lately he’d been toying with the idea of banning the scientists from first-contact teams. It only made sense that civilians shouldn’t go to a planet that hadn’t been cleared by the military first. He just had to think of a way to broach the subject with Elizabeth. She wouldn’t like the idea, but she’d see it his way in the end. Safety had been too lax for too damn long.
And here he was back at his quarters and maybe tired enough to actually sleep. His door opened with a quiet swish when he was still ten feet away, so he didn’t even have to break his stride as he ran into his room. Doors had been doing that a lot lately—opening with swift precision before he could swipe a hand in front of the panels. Busy little Ancients. John didn’t think any more about it, just fell heavily on his bed and thought the lights off without bothering to undress.
“Any ideas, Colonel?”
John started. He’d lost track of another meeting—this time losing himself in daydreams during Morning Staff. It wasn’t like this was an unusual occurrence, but he could no longer nod sagely and say something like, “Let’s give McKay a chance to do his stuff. Tell me when you need something shot.”
No, Zelenka wanted actual feedback, so you had to listen all the time. All Rodney had required was backup, and John had quickly learned that backing Rodney up was the best move three out of four times. Those were good odds and also meant that John could spend a lot of his time in staff meetings looking interested while thinking up ways to soup up Jumper One.
His confusion must have shown because Elizabeth said kindly, “The alterations in the city’s infrastructure?”
Okay, he’d heard that part. “Well, they’ve all been beneficial changes so far, right?”
“Yes, yes,” Zelenka said impatiently. “The shield is stronger, more drones are accessible, long-range sensors see farther. The question is why?”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I always say.” John let his natural drawl bleed through. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Teyla throw him a worried look. Fine. He sat up straighter. “Look. Militarily there aren’t a lot of options here. Let’s try not to use our new toys for a while. See what happens.”
“I agree with Colonel Sheppard,” said Elizabeth. That was rare these days. He glanced over at her. She smiled. “I think that’s enough for this morning.”
“Great.” John was already up and halfway out the door.
“John, may I have a word?” Damn, he’d been this close to a clean getaway. The others filed out, Teyla giving him a smile full of so much understanding he felt a brief urge to sock her in the nose. Get it together, John. He smiled pleasantly at Elizabeth.
“Have you given any thought to taking your team offworld again?”
Have you thought about replacing Rodney, he knew she meant and tried not to look like he’d been punched in the gut.
Now was not the time to tell her about his military-only plan. “I don’t think I’m quite ready,” he said instead, hating himself for choosing to appear weak, but knowing it would shut Elizabeth up for a while.
As he expected, she looked at him sympathetically. “How has it been going with Kate?”
Play the game. “I don’t think I’m exactly her favorite patient,” he said with a little-boy head duck.
Elizabeth laughed and seemed reassured. “Try not to give her too hard a time. And John? Think about your next mission.”
“I will,” he promised on his way out the door.
“McKay!” John shouted, senses filled with unseeing blue eyes and flat-lining monitors. Fuck. There had to be something he could do. If only he could get close to Rodney, but his feet were stuck to the floor. It couldn’t end like this. Not when he’d never even–
John felt himself shuddering against his hard mattress. His eyes felt sticky when he rubbed them open. Another nightmare. Thank God the living quarters were fairly soundproof. He didn’t need it getting around that Colonel Sheppard was calling for his lost teammate in the dead of night.
Now he was awake. He should get out of bed, go for a run, look over the duty roster, something. Anything was better than lying in bed stewing over old memories, which was what inevitably happened every time he woke in the middle of the night. He didn’t need any more messages from his subconscious; he got it. Epiphany was a bitch, but Heightmeyer would be proud of him if he ever told her. Which he never would. He sighed as the scene played out behind his closed eyes, the way it seemed to do at least once a night.
It hadn’t even been after an attack, some time when they’d cheated death again, adrenaline running high. No. He’d been so damn happy, and Rodney too—after they’d saved Atlantis, and the planet, after Sam the whale had said his good-bye in a way that Rodney had understood perfectly. McKay had been smiling out to sea, and John had suddenly found himself ridiculously, absurdly, overwhelmingly charmed and had stepped close to him. Too close, nearer than he usually allowed himself.
Rodney had turned that smile on him then, looking at him steadily, sudden understanding lighting his eyes. John had held his breath, knowing what was coming.
The first touch of lips was soft. So soft John had to open his eyes, had to pull back a little to be sure it was really McKay kissing him. Rodney had just smiled that brilliant smile and leaned forward to recapture John’s lips.
And for a moment, it had been good, so good, everything he hadn’t let himself think about. Then the world had come flooding back, and with it the return of John’s common sense.
He’d seen the light drain from Rodney’s eyes, had felt a queasy flutter in the pit of his stomach. This was never supposed to happen. He’d never wanted to make Rodney look like that.
“Rodney,” he’d said again, choking a little. “I’m not—”
“No,” Rodney had said quickly. “Of course not. I’m sorry.”
“My fault completely, Colonel. It won’t happen again.” His mouth was twisted unhappily. It had taken all John had not to pull Rodney back to him. But he couldn’t. They couldn’t.
“I’ll just go inside then, shall I? Before I embarrass either one of us any further?” Rodney had been on the verge of a babbling fit and seemed to realize it. He’d turned quickly, heading inside.
John had forced himself to stay calm. He’d grasped Rodney’s arm, right below the Canadian flag, and given him a smile that revealed nothing more than camaraderie. “It’s all right, McKay. Breathe.”
“Yes. Well. Thank you, Colonel.” Rodney hadn’t looked any happier. John saw him attempt a careless smile and had felt a rush of dangerous affection. When Rodney had started back inside, John hadn’t stopped him.
He couldn’t remember how long he’d stood out on that balcony, running it through his mind, feeling Rodney’s lips against his. They couldn’t; that was all there was to it. He’d already let himself become dangerously close to McKay; it couldn’t go any further.
It wasn’t even DADT, not completely. There were ways around that, and over the years John had found them all. An anonymous blow job in an off-post bar. A quick fuck in an air field lavatory when you and the guy were heading to different postings. John understood these things. They didn’t get in the way.
This thing with McKay was different. John already liked him way too much; you couldn’t feel protective about someone you had to go into combat with. You wouldn’t be able to remain detached enough to do what was necessary. Being in command made it that much worse. He had all of Atlantis to think about. If he couldn’t function because someone was holding a gun to McKay’s head or a knife to his arm, all his people would suffer. If he couldn’t be objective, his people might die. You didn’t fuck a teammate. There were reasons for that.
John rolled over and punched his pillow. Lying sleepless in the early morning hours it was hard to remember what his logic had been. Hard to remember why it had seemed so important. Even when Rodney had been putting his affairs in order, after the fucking Ascension machine had done its damage—even then John hadn’t pulled him close, hadn’t kissed him hungrily the way he’d wanted to. It would have felt too much like giving up, like acknowledging Rodney was going to die—hey, no consequences!—John couldn’t do that.
So they’d only ever had that one abbreviated kiss. And worse than that, Rodney had never known how much John had wanted him. All Rodney knew was that he’d been rejected. Because John had had some chickenshit ideas about emotional distance.
And that had turned out about as well as John’s brilliant plans usually did, of course, because he had no emotional distance as far as Rodney had been concerned. His objectivity had been blown the minute Rodney had walked into that energy-sucking cloud their first month in the city. While Rodney had been alive, John had been able to lie to himself, had been able to pretend Rodney was just another teammate. Now that Rodney was dead, John realized the truth, too late to do either of them any good.
John’s head was pounding. Self-flagellation apparently caused migraines. He stumbled to the bathroom, soaked a washcloth in cold water, and placed it over his forehead as he sank back into his mattress. Now that he’d gone through the John Sheppard Multiplex of Shame—tonight’s offering: “How John Fucked It Up With Rodney,” maybe he’d finally be able to sleep.
His headache was still there the next day, flaring up a bit as John stood in the doorway of Zelenka’s lab watching his Marine watch the scientists. The pain had mostly faded to a dull buzz at the back of his skull. He thought about getting some pills from Carson, but decided against it. It wasn’t that bad, just weird, like a hum flitting around the edges of his brain. Rodney would have probably diagnosed a brain tumor. The pang he felt at the thought made his head throb again. He needed some real sleep so he could stop being such a basket case. Maybe he’d get some meds from Carson after all.
He wandered over to where Radek was peering intently at his laptop screen. Looking over his shoulder, John couldn’t make out any of the data. McKay would have swatted him away in annoyance. Zelenka just looked up mildly, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Any luck tracing the source of our sudden good fortune?” John asked to explain his presence.
“Not yet, Colonel. I will let you know.” He turned back to his computer, a pointed dismissal.
Well. John had grown used to the cold shoulder from the other scientists, had taken it as confirmation that he was doing his job, but he hadn’t expected this attitude from the Czech.
Suddenly Radek sighed. “It has been a long day, yes? After a long night. We are all tired.”
“Sure,” John said cautiously.
“Atlantis is behaving oddly. I am forced to do Rodney’s job as well as my own. Forgive me if I am on edge.”
“No problem.” John didn’t like hearing him talk so casually about Rodney somehow, like he was no more than his work, but he couldn’t exactly say that.
“Yes. Now if you would please leave. You make the others nervous and we have much work to do.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“Of course not. You are military commander, you may go where you please. I am merely pointing out that scientists lose efficiency when half their intellect is devoted to plotting a civilian uprising.”
John looked around. The scientists were indeed casting him sporadic resentful looks. Even Dr. Esposito—who John knew for a fact had had a crush on him as recently as three weeks ago—had abandoned her work on an Ancient yo-yo to glare at John murderously.
“They do not like being watched over like babies or ovce. You know this.”
“It’s for your own—”
“Please. Do not insult me. You are not the only one who misses Rodney, you understand? But we cannot work like this.”
John wanted to tell Radek he had it all wrong but blinding bursts of pain were suddenly flashing behind his eyelids. It felt like his brain was trying to crawl out of his skull.
He tried to answer, the words I’m fine struggling to come out. Instead his knees buckled and he had to grab the console to keep from falling. He was dimly aware of Zelenka calling for a medical team before the world faded out in a dampening rush of black.
John opened his eyes and was not at all surprised to find himself in the infirmary.
What did surprise him was the complete lack of excruciating pain. He didn’t feel drugged, and he wasn’t—he took a quick survey of his body—dead, so... huh.
Actually, he felt great. The buzz was still there in the back of his mind, but it wasn’t painful at all any more. It felt kind of comforting, like having the TV on when you were home alone. Alien possession?
He wasn’t really sure how to go about probing his mind, but when he tried it there didn’t seem to be any other consciousnesses in there with him, and he felt like Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, USAF, for whatever that was worth. So he was going to go with a working theory that the buzz was a side effect of the terrible headache rather than a sign of evil mind control.
He supposed he should be worried about... epilepsy or space flu or some other horrible disease that could get him grounded, but he hadn’t felt this good in weeks. The secret to finally getting a good night’s sleep was to pass out in the labs, apparently. That explained a lot about Rodney.
All in all he saw no reason to stay on his back in a hospital bed, so he sat up and swung his legs over the edge, relatively pleased to discover an IV line attached to his arm but nothing else. There was no one in the infirmary, which was odd, but to his advantage. He looked around, hoping to spot his uniform nearby.
Just when he’d made up his mind to make a break for it in the hospital scrubs he was wearing, Carson bustled in, Elizabeth trailing after.
“No you bloody well don’t, Colonel,” Carson said, pressing his shoulder firmly down to the mattress.
“I’m glad to see you awake, John.” Elizabeth smiled. “We were worried.”
“I feel great, Carson. I just needed some sleep.”
“Possibly, possibly,” he agreed. “We can’t find anything wrong with you. The scans we did while you were out show normal brain activity.”
“See,” John said, sitting up again. “I’m peachy.”
Carson raised an eyebrow. “Be that as it may, I’m going to ask you to remain our guest for a little while longer. Just to make sure there aren’t any more episodes.”
“I have work to do. Elizabeth, tell him.” His protest was half-hearted at best, but it seemed the right thing to say. The truth was he felt too good to argue, and he was still awfully tired.
“How long was I out?” He heard the sleepy mumble in his voice.
“Thirty-four hours,” Elizabeth said softly.
That long? He nestled into the soft pillow. He must really have needed sleep.
When he woke again, Teyla was in a chair at his bedside, either meditating or sleeping sitting up. He couldn’t tell which, even after she opened her eyes and smiled at him.
“Teyla.” His return smile was genuine; it felt strange on his lips.
“John. Are you feeling well?”
“I feel fantastic.” A sudden thought occurred to him. “I wasn’t asleep for days again, was I?”
She laughed. “No. Just a few hours.”
He stretched, sitting up a little, and felt a sudden rush of well-being that seemed to come from somewhere outside of him. Maybe he needed to rethink that alien possession hypothesis.
“Anything exciting happen while I was out?” He felt like listening to her talk without having to think for a while. Teyla’s idea of excitement would be a new farming method on the mainland or some mischief the Athosian children had gotten up to. He could zone out and let her smooth voice ripple over him.
She didn’t disappoint, and John felt himself drifting off again even though he was not tired any more, when something caught his attention.
“Say that again.”
Teyla gave him her Look of Serene Reproach No. Four, which meant she knew he hadn’t been listening.
“Sergeant Wynn discovered the machine of the Ancestors he was using to clean dishes has additional capabilities to synthesize food products. Dr. Simpson calls it a... replicator? Not,” she assured him quickly, “anything like the Replicators of Asuras.”
“Wynn found a replicator?” This had to be another of the improvements Atlantis seemed to be making to itself. He’d bet dollars to donuts the Ancient dishwasher hadn’t been able to do that before.
“Yes,” Teyla said. “But all it will... replicate is chocolate. It is much tastier than the substance of the same name in your ‘Power Bars.’ Ronon has grown quite fond of it.”
John couldn’t stop laughing, even when Teyla sent him a look of undisguised concern. “Rodney,” he said between gasps, “Rodney would have loved that.”
For once he didn’t feel the tearing pain that usually accompanied thoughts of McKay. Instead he was almost sure he felt, pushing at his consciousness, a little sigh of satisfaction.
Carson let him out once he was sure his brain wasn’t going to explode any time in the near future with a strict admonition to stay in his quarters and rest.
He was going to do it, he really was, but when he walked into his room, the lights dimmed themselves to a soft glow. It was nice, but John was sure he hadn’t thought them any instructions to do that. As a matter of fact he needed some light so he could find the copy of Bourne Identity he’d traded Lorne War and Peace for.
He thought Brighter at the lights, but nothing happened. He thought it again, and was sure he felt something nudge at his mind. Something that said clearly, though not in words, No.
He sat hard on his bed. Huh.
So much for rest. He quickly pulled on a pair of sweats and his running shoes, and headed out the door. He took the transporter to the unpopulated Northwest Pier and started running.
It took his mind a while to quiet down, like always, but then he could think. Okay, so his lights thought they knew better than him. No big deal, and they might have been right. He probably should have been resting.
Only his lights had never done that before. The coolest thing about Atlantis—the thing that had made him secretly squeal like a fourteen-year-old girl when he’d first come through the Stargate—was the way he could control the equipment with his mind. Okay, the coolest thing about Atlantis was actually the puddlejumpers, but that wasn’t the point.
The point was, he could control the equipment with his mind. Atlantis had seemed almost alive in the beginning; dormant consoles powering up when he walked into a room as if awakening from a long sleep, technology far beyond what he’d seen on Earth eager to do his bidding like it had been waiting just for him.
What Atlantis was, though, was a technologically advanced city, not a living presence. It responded beautifully to John, but it responded just as well to anyone with the ATA gene. John was better at manipulating the technology than most, but he was good with machines. The puddlejumpers flew like dreams for him because he was always the best pilot wherever he went, not because they were making an effort to please him, in spite of what some of the Marines thought. There was nothing more to Atlantis than metal and glass, or whatever the Ancients had used to build it.
John knew this because Rodney had devoted a good part of their first year to a search for some kind of directing AI, but it wasn’t there. Nor had John ever felt any kind of organic intelligence. Atlantis certainly didn’t have opinions. It did what you wanted it to, or it was broken and you called Rodney to fix it.
But something had clearly told him No. And what’s more John had felt what he was sure was concern, along with a suggestion he go to bed and get some rest so whatever it was could stop worrying about him. Since it seemed unlikely the lights in his room had turned into his mother in the time he’d been unconscious, John felt justified in being a bit freaked out.
The comforting buzz in the back of his head, the mental nudges he’d been feeling for so long without really even noticing—these were coming from Atlantis itself; John had no doubt any more. But Atlantis was not intelligent. At least it never had been, not until it started bringing new systems on-line and increasing the efficiency of those that were already there. A replicator? For chocolate?
And John hadn’t really needed to go running, of course. He didn’t have to think; he knew what was going on. But knowing wasn’t understanding. Wholly contradictory ideas screamed through his head. Rodney wasn’t dead; he was more sure of that than he’d ever been of anything in his life. But Rodney wasn’t here.
He ran and ran, until he had to crawl, then somehow made it back to his room. He fell on his bed and was asleep before the lights turned off by themselves.
The answer came from Atlantis, seemingly from the walls of the gym around him. It wasn’t in language, more just a feeling that sort of... diffused through John’s body. And it was lying.
“Rodney, I know you’re there.”
Rodney, or Atlantis, or—the possibility wasn’t off the table—John’s late-onset schizophrenia was silent.
John had the distinct impression of the city trying to hold its breath until it turned blue like a three-year-old.
“You Ascended, didn’t you?”
Ha. John felt a sudden blast of surprise. The lights brightened slightly, as if they were taking an interest.
“What? You didn’t think I’d be able to figure it out? It’s obvious.”
Now there was disbelief.
“Chocolate, Rodney? Thanks for boosting the top speed in the jumpers, by the way.”
There was the satisfaction again, an emotion so typically Rodney that John had to smile.
“So how do we get you back? The machine did things kind of differently than your normal Ascension.”
There was no response.
“Can you come back on your own? Because the upgrades have been great, but we need you back now.”
Still nothing. John tried to probe the silence with his mind, but either he hadn’t figured it out completely yet or there was nothing there. Okay. He’d been cowardly long enough.
“I need you back now,” he said more quietly than he’d intended.
He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he felt the burning in his lungs. He forced himself to breathe normally—for a long time—but there was no answer.
Any more running and John would need artificial knees before he was forty, so he decided to have a nice little mental breakdown instead. His office was a good place for it. It was the last place anyone would come looking for him.
He thought the door locked and bypassed the desk chair to sit in a corner with his head in his hands. He’d seen Rodney’s body. He’d held Rodney’s body, not to mention the little Athosian box they’d put his ashes in. But Rodney wasn’t dead, which was good news—the best—and really shouldn’t require an existential crisis.
So the ridiculous meditation plan had worked after all—clear blue skies, my ass—even if the machine had somehow made it look like he’d died. But the second part of the plan had been for Rodney to de-Ascend and come back. Yet Rodney was somehow inhabiting Atlantis instead—when John placed his bare hand against the wall he could feel a thrum pulsing through it. The city felt alive in a way it never had before.
So there were two possibilities here. John felt a little better now that he could quantify the problem. First, that Rodney was enjoying his new role as Atlantis Good Fairy, and had decided to embrace a career in Ascension. From the contempt Rodney had come to hold the Ancients in, this seemed unlikely. Or second, that Rodney was stuck somehow, a ghost in the machinery of Atlantis, and couldn’t find his way back.
This possibility seemed more likely. Who knew what the Ascension machine had actually done? It clearly hadn’t been working right. John had seen people Ascend, with the glowy bodies and the empty clothes; probably the device was supposed to do the same thing. Not for the first time, John wished the Ancients had had the decency to destroy their failed experiments.
No. Rodney was not staying away voluntarily. No way would he abandon his work on Atlantis. Or its people. Or me. John clamped down quickly on that thought. No. It was clear what he had to do. John wouldn’t leave a man behind.
His first instinct was to go to Elizabeth. Then he remembered the last month of concerned looks and mandatory therapy and gentle hints that it was time to move forward. He could just imagine how it would go. Elizabeth, my imaginary friend Rodney needs some help becoming corporeal. Elizabeth was convinced Rodney was dead, and she was at least half-convinced John was unstable.
Radek, then. He was never on the radio when you needed him, so John dropped casually by his lab, and used his military authority to strong-arm him into accompanying John to the Ascension machine room.
“Stuj, sedivy despota.” Radek brushed John off and looked around. “Why are we here? You wish to become Superman?”
John wasn’t sure how to say it, so... “McKay’s not dead.”
Radek’s angry look transformed quickly to pity. “I was at the memorial.”
Fuck, John didn’t want to deal with this, but he wasn’t going to get anywhere if the nice man thought he was crazy. He took a breath. “He’s been doing all the improvements around here lately. The shield, the jumpers—”
“Yes, yes. Of course the ghost of Rodney is tinkering with Atlantis.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Sounds like him, actually.”
“Radek. I know it looked like Rodney died. I was there, remember?”
Zelenka squinted at him, considering. “And you have reason to doubt the evidence of our eyes?”
“He Ascended. I’ve... felt things.” God, this was embarrassing. “And the city’s been behaving strangely, you know that. Rodney’s become part of Atlantis somehow. I can’t explain it.”
Radek had gotten a pensive look on his face. “It’s true there are many things we don’t understand about the Ascension platform.”
“Yes! I know he didn’t go all glowy, but—”
“I am thinking.” Zelenka shushed him with an eerily familiar gesture. “All right. I will look into it.”
“Although I still think you are unhinged with grief.”
“Think whatever you want as long as—”
“Yes, yes. I want Rodney back too, if such a thing is possible.”
John opened his mouth again. He didn’t want to say this, but it was important.
Radek waved a hand before he could speak. “I will not notify Elizabeth until I have concrete information. I do not wish to appear mad, any more than you do.”
Zelenka was almost as good at reading his mind as McKay, which was creepy. But he was going to find Rodney for him.
"Why build something that, you know, kills you if you can't Ascend? Seems like a pretty big design flaw." AU from "Tao of Rodney."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
John needed something to do. Something besides haunting the labs after hours to check on Zelenka’s extra-curricular project.
Radek had looked at him with sympathy the first few times he’d offered his help, but had lately taken to cursing at him in Czech before John could even open his mouth. He hadn’t learned anything so far; John had gotten that much out of him. He was analyzing the different sub-routines in Atlantis’ main systems, searching for anomalies that might betray a foreign presence. He insisted John would only slow him down.
John desperately wanted to poke around the Ascension machine itself. Theoretically, it was safe; the scientists were fairly sure they’d managed to shut it down. Still it was probably a good idea for John to keep his ATA gene away from it. But—and this he didn’t tell Zelenka, and wouldn’t tell Elizabeth either, when they let her in the loop—if it came down to it, if it was the last choice, John wouldn’t hesitate to use the machine to Ascend himself and drag Rodney back.
John was self-aware enough to realize he was starting to get a little irrational, but he was pretty okay with it. And as long as he could still smile, and drawl, and lean against things, nobody needed to know about the turmoil going on inside him.
He ran, until he thought he could probably take Ronon in an endurance test. He avoided Elizabeth, so he wouldn’t have to discuss his team’s makeup. He played the grieving-friend-but-nothing-more for Heightmeyer. There were new Marines; he trained them on the firing range. It felt good to fire the P90s, but that could only distract him for so long. He was so desperate for something to occupy himself he would have done paperwork, but Lorne was being a good friend and a good second by taking it over while John dealt with the loss of a teammate.
So he moved through Atlantis, stroking things, trying to find Rodney in the walls; if anyone thought John’s new touchy-feely relationship with the city was odd, they kept it to themselves. And he could feel McKay’s presence as he grasped a balcony railing or trailed a hand across a panel. Not always, but it was there often enough to keep him looking. He tried to explain it to Zelenka, but didn’t have the words. It was like a buzz, but that wasn’t it. Or a heartbeat, but that was wrong too. Hardest of all to explain was his certainty it was McKay. Everything in him told him it was Rodney.
Even if John hadn’t been sure on a visceral level the presence he felt was McKay, an Ascended Rodney was almost as transparent as a physical one. After the third night of Zelenka ejecting him from the labs, when John could find no trace of Rodney by palming the walls, he headed to the Game Room.
It was there right away: disappointment, a twinge of hurt. He felt a little bad about that; but he was mostly elated about the real connection he was making, how Rodney was revealing himself. He powered up the consoles and scanned the most recent logs for developments. Geldar had refused his country’s peaceful and generous offering of citrus fruit. Well, he’d see about that.
John was not at all surprised when the Game’s power cut off abruptly and he found himself staring at blank screens. A feeling of petty satisfaction nudged at his mind.
“I’d be glad to let you play, McKay, but you gotta come back first.”
Then there was sadness, bleak and overpowering.
“Hey, buddy,” he said softly, feeling like a jerk. “We’re working on it. Radek will think of something.”
He could still feel Rodney’s unhappiness, hours later when he was lying in bed trying uselessly to sleep. He wanted to get up and go to the Ascension machine room right now; this had gone on long enough. He needed Rodney back, needed him with a depth that staggered him. He’d always thought of himself as self-reliant—emotionally stunted, his wife had called it—being an island unto himself worked for him. These new feelings were scary as hell. John had thought he was done with the epiphanies, but clearly he’d been wrong.
He rolled onto his stomach, reaching a hand through the twisty Ancient sculpture that served as his headboard, and flattened his palm against the wall. The sensation was there; this time it did feel like the thump of a heart, beating along in time with his own. John felt himself float along with the pulse, finally tired enough to sleep. As he drifted off, he was sure he could feel the warmth of Rodney’s palm against his.
Zelenka, the weasel, was avoiding him. John had been to all the main labs and three of the ones the scientists didn’t think he knew about. He’d staked out the mess during the breakfast and lunch services, and he had Chuck spying for him in the gateroom.
Radek was good, but John had special forces training; in the end it wasn’t a contest. Radek turned the wrong corner; John melted from his plain-sight hiding place and stood in front of him.
“Any news, Radek?”
“Colonel Sheppard.” Zelenka took a breath.
Alarm bells started going off in John’s head. “Don’t do this to me, Radek.”
Zelenka sighed. “There is nothing. No matter how many places I look, how many times I run the data.”
“So we try something else.”
“There’s nothing else to try. If Rodney Ascended,” Zelenka said, lowering his voice, “it is a metaphysical state. I have looked and looked for a physical trace, but there is nothing.”
“Then you’re looking in the wrong places.”
“John,” Radek said in far too kind a voice. “I do not have the gene; I thought this was perhaps the problem, so I asked discreet questions of the scientists who do. All said the same thing. They feel no changes in Atlantis, no unusual presence, nothing.”
In Basic, John’s instructor had told them over and over at every opportunity how a good soldier has a place in himself that feels no emotions—not hate, not compassion, not love. It’s this place he finds when he needs to do a soldier’s work like shooting an enemy or killing sixty men with the push of a button. John had always been spectacularly good at finding that place. So good he sometimes worried one day he might not be able to find his way back. Right now he didn’t care.
He moved Radek back against the wall with his eyes more than his hands. He didn’t raise his voice. The words flowed from him; he barely knew what he was saying.
“You don’t believe me. You think Rodney never Ascended.”
Zelenka looked terrified. Good. “Colonel. If he did, there is nothing we can do for him. He will come back, or not, as he chooses.”
A part of John admired Radek for keeping his voice steady, even as the colder, calculating part of him wondered just what it would take to change his mind.
“Gentlemen! What is going on here?”
John turned his head slowly away from Zelenka. Elizabeth had seen them. He couldn’t bring himself to care.
“My office in five minutes. Both of you.”
And she was gone. John blinked, feeling like himself again, not happy about it. The fear wasn’t entirely gone from Zelenka’s eyes. John supposed he should feel bad about taking satisfaction in that.
He had to tell Elizabeth the whole damn story, of course. If he thought he’d gotten the sympathetic eyes before now, he’d clearly misjudged the extent of her arsenal of pity.
John could see her struggling not to judge him, to weigh the merits of his conviction. It made him a little sick to see the diplomatic tools being brought out for him. She wanted him to feel validated, not attacked. She wanted him to see that he was being taken seriously.
And because John knew that Elizabeth was a good person on the deepest level, a person of uncomplicated integrity, he knew that she wanted to take him seriously. She didn’t believe him; she thought he was dealing with a friend’s death badly, but she wouldn’t let that influence her decision.
Which was to keep the science department looking into it, for the time being. John knew this was solely for his benefit, and he also knew that it didn’t matter. Radek was convinced Rodney was dead; there would be no solutions coming from the scientists. It was time to use the machine himself. He found the idea didn’t scare him, which was a little frightening in itself. But there was no other way. He didn’t know what would happen, didn’t know if it would even be possible to communicate with Rodney after he’d Ascended, but he had to try. And he had a pretty good record with suicide missions, all things considered.
Having made the decision, he felt good, even peaceful. Coming back to himself, he was surprised to find Elizabeth watching him, Zelenka having already left the room.
“John,” she said once she saw him looking back at her. “I made this decision before today. So please try not to see it as a punishment.”
John waited calmly. It didn’t matter what she did to him; he felt beyond that.
“The SGC has been asking for someone from Atlantis to return to Earth. The IOA wants a comprehensive debriefing on the Asurans and the Ancients. And well, what we’ve been up to.”
Impossible. There were things that had to be done on Atlantis. “No.”
“It will only be for a week, plus travel time on the Daedulus. We’ll keep looking for Rodney, you know that. I need to send someone I trust.”
“And you think I need a nice little vacation on Earth.”
“I won’t lie to you. I did think the time away would do you good. I still do.”
“I’m not going to Earth, Elizabeth.”
“I can’t go to—”
A powerful rush of emotion flooded through his body. And a message, clearer than ever before, It’s all right. Go.
John wanted to argue, but there was no one to fight with. Just an overwhelming feeling. Go.
Rodney had been pushing against him all the way through this, denying it was really him, staying frustratingly hidden.
“Rodney.” He said it out loud, not caring when Elizabeth looked sharply at him.
He was sure he heard the actual word this time, ringing through his head in that familiar voice. He closed his eyes, feeling tired, beaten down. It was always so hard to withstand Rodney.
“All right.” His words weren’t for Elizabeth, but she was the one who nodded.
The trip was uneventful, notable only for the game John invented to pass the time: seeing how few words he could speak to Caldwell and crew each day. Twenty or less was a winning score. He won nine times.
And then there was Earth, looking crowded and gray and like the inside of a mountain. He nodded to Mitchell, hoped to God he wouldn’t run into Carter, said possibly two words to General Landry—one of which was “Sir”—and found himself escorted off the base and into an SUV with a young corporal at the wheel.
The corporal didn’t feel much like talking either, saying only, “Pick you up at 0800 tomorrow, sir,” as he dropped him off at the Broadmoor Hotel—which turned out to be a fancy resort at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with golf courses and tennis courts and stuff.
He’d been given the suite the SGC maintained for visiting dignitaries. Since these dignitaries were from other planets with surprising frequency, the suite was concealed underground—accessed from private stairs behind the kitchen—but it was still nice.
He wondered whether his swanky accommodations were due to the SGC not wanting him loose in Cheyenne Mountain, or if Elizabeth had pulled some strings to make it seem more like a vacation. It didn’t matter; he couldn’t see himself golfing or using the nearby Olympic team training facilities—another SGC perk. Aliens couldn’t work out in the regular gym, apparently.
Still there was a king-sized bed and a flat-screen television and Top Gun on one of the movie channels. John muted the sound so he wouldn’t have to listen to Tom Cruise, lay down on the bed, and was asleep in minutes.
SG-1 was offworld the next day and not expected back—no Carter!—but General O’Neill was among the group of military and IOA John was expected to report to. O’Neill felt that giving them back Atlantis and preserving John’s rank entitled him to slap John on the shoulder, hard, and waggle his eyebrows at him. John wondered why people thought he was weird; he could take lessons from O’Neill.
John spent a long day answering questions—no, he didn’t think the Asurans would be susceptible to Ori mind control; no, that in no way meant they could be utilized as allies in the war. He dodged rather obvious attempts to get him to say Weir wasn’t in control, and listened to them tell him Atlantis could not expect military reinforcements. His utter boredom at least had the side effect of making him fall asleep almost as soon as he got back to the hotel, and the next three days passed in much the same way.
The fourth day he finished at the mountain a little early, went back to the hotel, and swam in the infinity pool until he turned pruny. He threw on a robe, took the back stairs to his room, and found Rodney McKay lounging on his king-sized bed watching Doctor Who.
When his heart finished dropping through the floor he managed to sputter out, “McKay! What the hell?”
Rodney looked up, smiling brightly. “I can’t believe they gave you this suite.”
John stepped forward casually, more than half-convinced he was hallucinating. He dropped onto the bed. If Rodney could be cool, he could be cool. Rodney, maddeningly, kept watching the television. Fine. John couldn’t be cool. He smacked the back of Rodney’s head, leaping from the bed when his hand went straight through.
Rodney looked up sheepishly. “Sorry.” He made a little hand wave and the air around him seemed to shimmer. “You can touch me now.”
John sat cautiously. He placed a hand on Rodney’s shoulder. It seemed solid enough. God, Rodney’s shoulder. After all this time.
John realized he was gripping Rodney’s shoulder hard, clenching his fingers. He removed his hand slowly, like it was no big deal. Fuck. John had so much to say, so many questions, but none of them would come. Rodney, in his time in Ascension-land or wherever, must have developed some serenity. He seemed content to just sit there with a small smile on his face, Doctor Who blaring in the background.
John called upon a lifetime of military discipline and finally managed to say, “I think you owe me some explanations, McKay.”
“Oh.” Rodney seemed surprised by the idea, then a bit embarrassed. “Sure.” He cast a glance of reluctant longing at the television before flipping it off.
“Well?” John asked, when Rodney didn’t seem inclined to say anything further.
“Seriously, what did you do to deserve this place? Have you felt these sheets? God, I’ve missed real beds. You don’t realize how important that is until—”
“Fine. Explanations, I know. No need to channel your inner Rottweiler. I, um... Ascended.”
John let out the breath he was holding in a huff. “I know that, Rodney.”
“Oh. Um. Of course you do. Well, let me tell you, Ascension is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s unbelievably boring, for one thing. I mean, sure, infinite knowledge is nice. I developed a really neat workup of the Grand Unification Theory, by the way, remind me to tell you about it—”
“Georgi and Glashow got it completely wrong, the quacks. Of course, they were working with mortal limitations, so it’s not entirely their fault, I suppose.”
“Rodney. Why are you here?” Are you staying?
Rodney flashed a quick smile. John didn’t miss the sadness in it. “Can we talk about this later?”
Okay. John was cool. He could not push things. For now.
“Ooh.” Rodney was up like a shot, grabbing something off the phone table. “Can we order room service?” He settled in a chair and flipped through the menu. “The SGC is paying for this, right?”
John didn’t feel capable of refusing Rodney anything, and there was no reason to, so they ordered cheeseburgers, and pizza, and t-bone steaks. As soon as the waiter finished setting up their food, Rodney said, “Oh, ravioli,” so John got back on the phone and got three kinds of pasta, chocolate cake, and Canadian beer.
He didn’t feel much like eating, so he watched Rodney. He’d been thinking about McKay close to nonstop since he... went away, yet somehow he’d managed to forget how blue his eyes were, and how his mouth turned down at one corner when he was concentrating. And the way he could put away food; though to be fair he couldn’t have eaten anything in close to six weeks. He was making little orgasm faces with almost every bite, and saying some variation of, “Oh my God, I missed this,” every two minutes or so. By the time he worked himself up to dessert, John was achingly hard and wondering what the etiquette was for jumping your Ascended best friend.
Rodney was there, right in front of him, and he didn’t know what to say or do. He didn’t know why Rodney was there, or how he would react if John confessed his feelings, or just grabbed him and threw him on the bed. And now he was making arousing noises around mouthfuls of chocolate cake with raspberry-mousse filling, and John was completely unequal to the situation. He had to close his eyes.
After a few moments the orgasm noises stopped. John opened his eyes cautiously to see Rodney staring at him, his crooked mouth spread in a soft smile of undisguised affection.
“What?” John asked, a little breathless.
“I missed you.”
Okay, then. In one motion John rose, grabbed Rodney by the front of his shirt, and hauled him to his feet, kissing him wildly. He tasted of chocolate and beer, which was really kind of gross, and made a little “mmph” of surprise before responding enthusiastically.
This was so much better than that first kiss, so much better than the thousand kisses John had imagined since. John couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get enough air, but he couldn’t stop kissing Rodney either. And there was a giant bed here somewhere and why had John gotten dressed again? Swim trunks and a robe would have been so much more efficient.
He was trying to push Rodney in the direction he thought the bed was without taking his tongue out of his mouth when he was suddenly shoved away, hard. The only thing that kept him from falling on the floor was the bed, and, huh, it wasn’t where he thought it was at all.
Rodney didn’t follow him to the mattress, or yank off his clothes, which was kind of what John thought might be happening. Instead he gaped at him with huge eyes and a dropped jaw, hands thrust out in what John could only assume was the Canadian method of warding off vampires.
“Me,” John said, feeling dazed but agreeable.
“You—groupie! You have an Ascension kink! I knew it. I so completely knew it!”
“Man. Woman. Doesn’t matter to you as long as they’re Ascended, does it? Chaya, that hippie from the time-dilation world—”
“Who’s next, Daniel Jackson? I am not a notch on your Ascended bedpost, Colonel.” His eyes narrowed. “And we are not doing that glowy thing, so you can get that out of your head right now.”
Rodney glared at him, chin lifted, eyes flashing. John had seen that look dozens of times, hundreds maybe, any time someone failed to live up to the McKay notion of competence. He suddenly had to choke down something welling in his throat. It was really Rodney. Here, after all this time. It seemed unbelievable, unreal. He blinked his eyes shut hard.
When he opened them, Rodney was still staring, but his expression had turned puzzled. John felt ridiculously like laughing. “I don’t have an Ascension kink, Rodney.”
“No.” John took a step forward, letting every bit of his desire show on his face.
“Sure?” Rodney’s voice was small.
“Oh.” He looked aroused, and a little lost. John had to take him in his arms, had to push his face into Rodney’s neck and breathe in. He felt him shudder.
“You were there, Rodney, sort of.” He took another deep breath. God, he smelled good. How had he not remembered that? “You had to have seen what a mess I’ve been. How much I’ve missed you.”
“Naturally you’ve all missed my scientific contributions.” Rodney’s breath had quickened. He was trying halfheartedly to pull away. “And I’d like to think I’m not easy to replace on the team.”
“Rodney.” Even Ascended, McKay had the power to make him insane. John leaned in and bit his neck softly. Rodney gasped and John shifted to his mouth, moving slowly. He bit at his lower lip, before licking his way inside.
“Oh,” Rodney said against his lips. John had to smile. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” he breathed.
This time Rodney didn’t fight the move to the bed, just looked up at him with something like wonder as John pushed him down to the mattress. He didn’t feel Ascended; he felt like flesh and blood. John wanted to touch, to skim his hands across every inch of Rodney’s skin.
Instead he found himself pulling Rodney to him, hands creeping under Rodney’s shirt, arms drawing tight across his back. He had to feel Rodney against him, had to bring him close, feel solid muscle, and warm blood. Had to breathe him in, memorize the scent.
“Hey,” Rodney said softly, petting his hair. “Hey, I’m here.”
John nodded tightly, unable to answer past the swelling in his chest. He crushed Rodney even nearer.
“Sheppard.” Rodney’s voice was tight. “I can’t breathe.”
“Do you need to?” John finally found his voice, even if it sounded shaky to his ears. “Aren’t you pure energy or something?” But he forced himself to relax, to let go.
“Very funny, Colonel.” Rodney pinched John’s arm. “Do I feel like energy to you?”
Only Rodney would pinch someone to convince them he was real. John felt a surge of overwhelming affection. Rodney stared down into his eyes, seemingly convinced for the moment that John wasn’t having some sort of breakdown, and leaned in for a kiss.
John held himself back, willing to start slow if it meant he could feel Rodney’s lips against his. As they kissed, a familiar sensation started to buzz all around his body. His skin tingled with it—that warm quiet murmur that had meant Rodney to him ever since he’d woken up that day in the infirmary able to recognize it for what it was.
And now John was able to move, able to flip them so that he was the one on top, straddling Rodney. He ground down, and Jesus that was Rodney’s cock underneath him. His cock, and John had made it hard. Rodney suddenly groaned. John had thought he knew Rodney so well, had seen him in nearly every possible situation, but he’d never heard him make a noise like that. He thrust his hips, rubbing their cocks together, so he could hear it again.
He leaned forward, needing to kiss Rodney now. The chocolate and beer were gone now, all that was left was the taste of Rodney. He had to have that, as much as he could. He heard the needy, desperate sounds he was making in the back of his throat, but didn’t care. Threading his fingers in Rodney’s fine hair, he learned the curve of his skull, the back of his neck.
“Clothes.” Rodney gritted the word out. He was so smart, a genius; John had missed that. He sat up, feeling Rodney’s cock against his groin, and urged Rodney onto his elbows.
He was in one of his ridiculous civilian get-ups. Why did a man need two shirts? It just made it that much more difficult to take them off. John growled as he finally managed to get rid of the first one, then stripped Rodney of his long-sleeved t-shirt in one smooth move.
And there was Rodney’s broad chest, with its smattering of fine hair. John had to touch, had to rub. He needed to feel Rodney’s beating heart under his hand, had to grip Rodney’s solid biceps. He wanted to leave marks, wanted to be able to see a thumbprint bruise and know that Rodney was real, was with him.
He got another one of those glorious moans as he thumbed a nipple, so he took it in his mouth. Rodney’s moans got wilder, and he thrust his hips uncontrollably. It was maybe the best thing John had ever felt; he never wanted to stop.
“Pants,” Rodney said.
John sat up so quickly he felt a head rush. Somehow they managed to get their pants off. John couldn’t remember how he’d lost his shirt, but it was gone, and he hadn’t been wearing socks, so as soon as they yanked their boxers off, they were naked together.
“Jesus, Sheppard.” Rodney was smiling, looking a little freaked out, but happy.
“Yeah,” John said. “Yeah.”
Then Rodney was on top of him again and he had, fuck, John’s dick in his hand and he was stroking it, making a tight fist, and John was thrusting, and he’d never felt anything like this, ever—this rush of emotion, and lust, and drowning pleasure.
Rodney’s hand was suddenly gone, and John had time for a small whimper before Rodney was rubbing against him, rubbing their cocks together, and it was different now that they were naked; it was amazing. John gripped Rodney’s shoulders, and if he hadn’t left bruises before, he was now. Rodney moaned again; John could feel the sounds buzzing against his chest, but all he could hear were his own harsh pants, all he could feel were bright bursts of pleasure.
Then Rodney said, “John,” and John heard that, and came harder than he ever had in his life, dimly aware Rodney was doing the same thing. He pulled Rodney close again, tight, and held him while the last shocks rolled through their bodies, and kept holding him, even after.
“God,” Rodney said, as John released his dick from his mouth and swallowed. “Why didn’t we do this when I was human?”
“We will,” John said.
Rodney didn’t say anything, just smiled a sad little enigmatic smile, and he was not the goddamn Mona Lisa. Afterglow gone, John pulled on his boxers and stalked to the telephone desk. He should be at least partially dressed for this conversation.
“Tell me what’s going on, Rodney.”
Rodney sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face. “I didn’t die. Obviously.” He made a hand motion across his body to indicate his unmistakable state of not-death. “Thanks for the eulogy, by the way. ‘An honor and a privilege,’ really?” He made a pleased little hum.
“Right. Well, after I Ascended against my will, I was all set to come back, but—”
He broke off, with a pained expression. “Look. There are things I’m not allowed tell you.”
“Not allowed? I don’t think so, McKay.”
“It’s not my choice. Ascension’s no picnic. There’s all these... rules. I thought academia had senseless and archaic policies, but they have nothing on the Ancients. Not even Princeton.”
“Good. Then you won’t miss it when you come back to Atlantis with me.”
“Um, yeah. About that.”
“I’m not giving you a choice here, McKay,” John said in his best command voice.
“I can’t, Colonel. It’s... complicated.”
“Not from where I’m sitting.” Huh, maybe therapy was working. He was really starting to feel some anger toward Rodney.
“They let me have one day. I was lucky to get it. The Ancients don’t really like me all that much.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
“Hey, hey. None of that. You like me. You said so in your eulogy.”
“I’m beginning to rethink that.”
“There are reasons I can’t come back. I want to tell you, but—I’m not supposed to interfere. That’s their biggest rule.”
John coughed something that might have sounded like, “Chocolate.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Very mature, Colonel.” He ran a hand through his hair, leaving half of it standing up. John did not think that was cute. “I have a certain leeway because I’m not an Ancient. They let me do stuff for Atlantis. But not if I de-Ascend.”
That made no sense. Rodney wanted to stay with the Ancient navel-contemplators so he could make municipal improvements? John felt the breath leave him as he figured it out. “Something’s going to happen to Atlantis.”
“No!” Rodney said quickly. “Not if I’m there to protect it.”
“What’s going to happen to Atlantis, Rodney?”
“I—can’t tell you. But I can save it. If I’m Ascended.”
“No. We do it together. Like always.”
“You don’t need Ancient hocus-pocus. You do a pretty good job just as McKay.”
Rodney looked tempted for a moment, and pleased. “I do, don’t I?” His face fell. “You don’t understand.”
“I’m not letting you leave, Rodney. We’ll figure something out.”
“No. It’s hard to explain but I can... see things. Possibilities. Every possibility. We can’t even evacuate because—it’s like everything already happened, and that never did.” He rubbed both hands over his face. “Ascension is so stupid. It makes a mockery out of physics.”
“Are you sure the Ancients don’t like you?”
Rodney just sighed. “When I try to save Atlantis as a human, people die. You die. Sometimes it’s not right away—but Atlantis always falls in the end.”
“Okay.” John felt desperate. “Save us and de-Ascend afterwards.”
Rodney smiled the sad smile again. Where had he picked that up? “I won’t be able to then. I’m not even sure I’ll be around, after.”
“That’s why I’m back now. To say good-bye.”
No. John felt like someone had reached in his chest and pulled out his lungs. He crawled onto the bed. He’d hold Rodney so tight he couldn’t leave.
“I was hoping I’d have time to see my cat, too. And my sister. But this was nice. This was... more than I’d hoped for.”
Rodney was starting to go transparent and golden around the edges. John had seen this once before. He tried to grip Rodney tighter, to keep him here, but Rodney felt insubstantial as smoke.
He was gone. John had his arms around empty air.
Fucking Rodney. Fucking, fucking Rodney. John couldn’t wait for his non-com chauffeur; he took a cab to Cheyenne Mountain. Jumping out at the guard post, he barked, “Pay the driver, Sergeant,” at one of the poor slobs on sentry duty and went in search of General O’Neill, who was the only person both highly-ranked and crazy enough to order a wormhole opened to Atlantis.
O’Neill was already there, thank God, and remarkably easy to convince, seeming to like the way the idea turned Landry red. John tried to give him his heart-felt thanks, but O’Neill just waved him off, mumbling about Ascended beings in a way that didn’t inspire confidence. Still he did say he was sorry he couldn’t send any Marines back with John, which was nice of him.
A few minutes later he was back in Atlantis.
He expected surprise at his return, and questions. No doubt he would have gotten both, but three minutes after he stepped through the wormhole, the Asurans dropped a satellite-borne gate through a hyperspace window.
It seemed that while he was away on his little vacation the IOA had sent a Daedalus-class cruiser—and appropriated some of his own men—for a strike on a shipyard on Asuras. John was briefly furious beyond reason at Elizabeth, but he believed her when she said she’d known nothing about it, and had tried desperately to have him recalled when Colonel Ellis and the Apollo had arrived two days before.
There was no time to be angry, anyway, because the Asurans on the other side of the satelite-slash-stargate were sending a beam of sustained energy through the wormhole straight at the city. Zelenka didn’t think the Asuran gate would shut off in the standard thirty-eight minutes; the Replicators had the essentially unlimited power that would let it remain open. And the Asuran gate was interfering with their own, so they were well and truly screwed.
They couldn’t destroy the enemy gate; it had a shield that was drawing power from the beam itself. John had a glimmer of hope when Zelenka said that firing on the shield had weakened it slightly, but it wasn’t enough. All the firepower in the city couldn’t collapse the shield while the beam was active. All they could do was watch the red energy beam strike their own shield and dissipate over its surface. It was kind of pretty, in a deadly way. Zelenka estimated Atlantis’ shield would hold a little more than a day.
Would it have really hurt the space-time continuum for Rodney to have given him a heads-up on this? It wasn’t like he had more than a day to do anything with the information. John sighed. Okay, Rodney. Do your stuff.
He didn’t really believe Rodney could do anything. Ascended or not, he was just one man. But John had to take some action, no matter how useless, so he backed carefully to a wall, leaning against it casually. Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, probably wondering why John cared about looking cool at a time like this. Reaching back with his bare hands, John could feel Rodney in the materials of Atlantis. It was nice, knowing he was there. Tell me what to do, buddy.
He felt something nudging at his mind, urging him to the chair room. Rodney was wrong this time; they just didn’t have enough ordnance to throw at the Asuran shield. Sitting in the chair would be pointless. But it wasn’t like he had any better ideas.
He trailed a hand along the walls of Atlantis on the way to the room; Rodney was with him the whole time. It had been months since John had used the chair; it looked welcoming now, like an old friend. When he sat down, it thrummed beneath him. He’d thought he’d felt Rodney in the structures of Atlantis before, but it was nothing compared to now. The comforting buzz was stronger than it had ever been—not just in his head but flowing all around him, caressing his body the way it had been in the hotel.
John felt ridiculously, absurdly happy. He was with Rodney; really, he didn’t want anything more out of his last day alive. But he could feel Rodney working through him now, and the chair, showing him drones upon drones stacked in the storage bays. It was breathtaking; there were thousands. Even so it wouldn’t be enough. Then Rodney was in head, nudging an idea into his brain, and John knew suddenly, with crystal certainty that Rodney could make the drones stronger, could increase their explosive force.
John tapped his radio. “Elizabeth. Tell Ellis to be ready to nuke the Replicator gate. I’m taking down their shield.” He switched off the radio in the middle of her startled reply. “Okay, buddy,” he said out loud, and let himself melt into the chair, let his mind go.
John didn’t know how long he sat there; it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but it felt timeless—like hours, or the blink of an eye. Together they fired the drones as fast as they could through the weapons portals. Then there was a rush of satisfaction, with a tinge of justified smugness. Rodney’s presence seemed to dissolve out of the chair, and John knew they had won.
“I suck at this, Kate.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“You’re not very supportive for a therapist.”
“I can’t do the work for you, John.”
“I’m going to make a confession.”
Kate raised a shapely eyebrow.
“Not long ago, I could... feel Rodney. In Atlantis, all around me.”
“What was that like?”
“Comforting. Like I wasn’t alone. Like I was loved.”
“That must have been a nice feeling.”
“Yeah, it was. He’s gone now.”
“He said he probably would be. He didn’t think he could do much more.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“Since I got him back, I think I understand why he had to leave.” John sighed, feeling ridiculous. “That doesn’t make sense. I told you I sucked at this.”
Kate smiled. “You know... on the day of the attack, when we were watching the drones launch, and we got word the Apollo had destroyed the Asuran gate...”
“Well—for just an instant—I was sure I heard Rodney say, ‘Good-bye, Kate.’ Of course he wasn’t there, but for a moment I was convinced of it... I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“And then,” Kate said suddenly, as if just remembering, “there was the oddest thing. When they powered down the shield, for a moment it had this beautiful golden glow, before it just sort of... misted off into the air. No one knew what caused it.”
“Huh,” John said. “I would have liked to see that.”
Something was making a noise somewhere near his shoulder.
Lorne? How did Lorne get on his bedside table? John struggled to wakefulness. Right. His radio. He grabbed it. “Sheppard here.”
“You need to get to the gateroom right away, sir.”
“What?” He still felt half asleep. “What’s going on?”
“Sir, I just—I really think you should get down here. Lorne out.”
He pulled on the clothes that were nearest and double-timed it to the transporter. Was it the Asurans again? Why the gateroom? He would have heard the offworld activation alarm.
When he got there, he saw Lorne and a cluster of Marines standing in front of the inactive gate, peering down at something on the floor. A scared-looking private noticed John’s arrival first. “He just... appeared, sir.” The kid was actually trembling. “Not through the gate or anything. Just out of the air.”
John pushed his way into the group. There, on the gateroom floor, asleep, was Rodney McKay. Naked Rodney McKay, covered only by a silver emergency blanket.
“He looked cold.” Lorne appeared at his elbow.
John knelt carefully down to Rodney. His breathing was even; his color was good. “Hey, buddy,” he said quietly. Part of him wanted to yell. Part of him wanted to kiss Rodney awake. Part of him wanted to manfully pass out and let the Marines deal with it.
That part might have been winning when a medical team rushed in and carried Rodney away.
Rodney woke up eleven hours later in the infirmary in perfect health and devoured a plate-and-a-half of pancakes like he hadn’t eaten in months. Which John knew for a fact was not true.
John had been there the whole eleven hours. The others had drifted in and out, staring at Rodney in shock, seeming to need to touch his hand or his forehead to know that he was real. The only person who hadn’t seem surprised was Ronon. He walked in, grunted approvingly, and left a pile of replicator chocolate.
Elizabeth told him that the few people who’d come back from Ascension invariably lost their memories, so John had prepared himself. It was a complete surprise then when Rodney opened his eyes, said “Colonel,” in a clear ringing voice and promptly went back to sleep.
After a few more hours John decided Rodney might be hungry when he woke up again, so he went to bully the mess staff into making pancakes. He couldn’t have been gone more than forty-five minutes. When he came back with two plates of pancakes—hey, he was hungry too—he could hear Zelenka’s voice pitched high in excitement.
Radek fell silent the instant John walked in, and watched him warily. Rodney had woken. He smiled at John with such pure joy John felt his heart flip. Then Rodney saw the pancakes. John was not jealous. At all.
Eventually Rodney came up for air, looked around, and said, “Where’s Radek?”
“He left twenty minutes ago.”
Rodney eyed John’s half-eaten plate hopefully. John handed it over and took a breath. “You told me you couldn’t come back.”
Rodney had a mouthful of pancakes. He swallowed hard. “They kicked me out! Can you believe it?”
John felt a strange happiness bubbling inside of him like a fountain. He hadn’t really let himself believe Rodney was staying. He tried to keep a straight face. “You? Why would they kick you out?”
“They had it in for me from the beginning. You ask one Ascended Ancient to please stop fucking with physics.” Rodney shook his head at the injustice of it all.
“Well.” John felt suddenly shy. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too.” Rodney smiled goofily before taking another bite of pancakes. “I didn’t even lose my memory like Jackson. Except for my Grand Unification Theory. You,” he pointed an accusing finger, “wouldn’t let me tell it to you. Of course you wouldn’t have understood it, but you might have retained enough to get me on the right track.”
The accusing finger waggled again. “Radek’s been getting me up to date. Marines in the labs? That ends yesterday. I had no idea my death would leave you so prostrate with grief that you’d lose all sense of judgement. It’s flattering, but, no.”
John nodded. He’d already decided to end the lab detail, but he liked hearing Rodney complain.
“And you’ve stopped exploring the abandoned labs? Do you know what kind of discoveries you’ve denied us? Of course you don’t. Because you haven’t been exploring!”
Rodney seemed to have more to say, but the door to Carson’s office opened. “Well, Rodney, you’ve had a wee nap, haven’t you?” Carson glanced at Rodney’s monitors. “Colonel, are you aggravating my patient?”
“Yes.” Rodney tilted his head self-righteously. “I’m gone for a few months and he institutes martial law. And he’s got Radek scared to death of him.” He looked thoughtful. “Actually, how did you do that? That could be useful.”
Before John could answer, Elizabeth and Teyla walked in. Teyla tilted her forehead to Rodney’s and Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek. Rodney looked unbearably smug.
John had to wait four hours to get Rodney alone again, but it was worth it because then Carson said Rodney could go rest in his room if he wanted and asked John to keep a close eye on him.
John kept a close eye on him all the way back to the staff quarters and into his room until he pushed him against the wall and kept an even closer eye on him and a tongue in his mouth.
“Wait.” Rodney pulled away. “What? We’re doing this now?”
John groaned. “Rodney.”
“Well, forgive me but the last time we did this on this planet, you ran away like a blushing virgin.”
“I was not blushing, and you ran away—”
Rodney waved a hand. “Technicalities.”
“And what was all that on Earth then?”
Rodney looked unsure. “Your Ascension kink?”
“Rodney.” John used his very expensive military training to sweep Rodney’s legs out from under him and deposit him on the bed. “I do not have an Ascension kink.”
“That’s convenient.” Rodney sounded a little breathless—probably because John was sucking his neck. “Because I’m not Ascended.”
“I know,” John said, licking his ear. “I know.”
Beta thanks to the lovely trinityofone, the wonderful sheafrotherdon and the members of mcshep_angst Thanks also to the multi-talented lunasky for the beautiful header.