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This story takes place immediately following events in S02E12 Epiphany.
As always, a million thanks to Lyn for the beta read!
John looked around the now empty field, shook his head, and led the way back to the cave and the portal. If he never saw another meadow like this again, that would be fine by him.
"I imagine the technology the Ancients built to maintain this place is amazing," Rodney said as they walked. "The power requirements alone must be off the scale. Certainly more than what one Zed-PM could handle. How would they have channelled that energy? And how large is that generator? We were able to detect it with the probe so it must …"
John did his best to ignore Rodney's chatter about the Ancient device that had created the time dilation field. While he could admit he had missed McKay and the others, he didn't need a scientific discussion of the technology that had trapped him in the sanctuary. All he wanted at the moment was to get back through the barrier. Get back to Atlantis. Get back to his life.
"There are any number of practical uses for that kind of technology," Rodney continued, his hands gesturing in front of him as he walked. "The ability to watch the growth cycles of viruses to find vaccines." He counted off one finger. "I could run any number of laboratory experiments regarding, say, the speed of light." He raised another finger. "That would make the scientific community sit up and take notice," he added in a wistful tone.
John heard Ronon grumble something under his breath about walking faster as Dex strolled past them with a glare in McKay's direction.
Rodney glanced at Ronon's back for a moment, then turned back to John. "But all of those are small-scale applications. Do you have any idea what's involved with creating a dilation field this big?" Rodney asked, and John saw the excitement in his eyes. "You should see this place from space. It must be more than a thousand kilometers across."
John shook his head and looked out at the trees in the distance. Leave it to McKay to get excited about some weird piece of tech, he thought bitterly to himself. Never mind that it was that same technology that had kept John trapped for months on end.
"Figuring out how they did that would rewrite whole textbooks not just on physics, but engineering, mathematics," Rodney continued, seemingly oblivious to John's mood as he glanced back at the other side of the field. "Too bad your new friends won't give me a chance to study it."
John grunted and kept walking. He'd been trapped here for six months. Six months of waiting. Six months of hoping to see Rodney, or Ronon, or Teyla stroll into the cloister and hearing how they never gave up looking for him. Six months of wondering if his team had forgotten all about him, written him off as MIA, and moved on with their lives.
It had been a shock to learn he'd been missing for only a couple of hours from their perspective. John did the math in his head as he walked and felt his stomach turn over when he realised he could have lived the rest of his life and died of old age in what would have been a few days to his team.
"Even if we couldn't take the Zed-PM, or more likely, Zed-PMs, with us there might be -"
"Enough, already, McKay!" John shouted.
"I was just …" Rodney started to say but thankfully stopped talking when John glared at him.
John saw something in Rodney's expression, a mix of fear, relief, and hurt, but at the moment didn't really care to dissect what was going on inside McKay's head. He waited until Rodney turned away, looking out at the field surrounding them, then John hurried his pace until he walked next to Ronon, who walked with one arm wrapped around his chest.
Teer had warned him the beast was attacking his friends, and John hadn't stopped to really think about what he would do when he found the creature. His two previous encounters hadn't ended well, to say the least, but the only thing he had heard at the time was that his team was in trouble, and instinct took over. He had heard the gunshots as he raced through the forest, and even after six months, he could still tell the difference between a P-90 and a Beretta. When the automatic fire had stopped a few seconds later, John had run faster.
He had a glimpse of someone on the ground as he ran out of the trees and attacked the beast from behind. It wasn't until the beast disappeared, again, that John saw Rodney and Beckett standing in front of Elizabeth with their weapons raised and Ronon still on the ground, not moving. Dex had shaken off Beckett's helping hand, but John knew from painful experience that attacking the beast was no easy task.
"You all right?" John asked as they walked.
"I'm fine," Ronon replied and lowered his arm. "Just had the wind knocked out of me."
John wasn't sure that was the case at all but let the matter drop for the moment. "You did better than I did against that thing," he said with a crooked smile. "I was apparently a bloody mess after my two encounters with it."
"One more reason you will be spending time in the infirmary once we get back," Carson said from behind him.
"One of the villagers had the power to heal injuries," John said. He tried not to think about Hedda running a hand over his face and neck and his wounds disappearing. "Besides, I had plenty of time to heal." He looked back at Beckett walking beside Elizabeth and caught Rodney's guilty expression.
Let it go, John, he ordered himself as McKay ducked his head and slowed until he walked beside Teyla, who was bringing up the rear of their group. Your team found you. Eventually. Time to move on.
Carson shook his head. "Injuries aside, I have no idea what this time dilation field may have done to you, Colonel. At the very least, I want to run some scans and make sure there won't be any long-term side effects."
John sighed. He knew Beckett was right, but all he wanted was a shower, a shave, and a meal that consisted of something other than fruit, vegetables, and various mushrooms.
"I'll be wanting to check you over, as well," Carson said to Ronon. "No arguments," he added when Ronon shook his head. "That beast, or whatever it was, tossed you about like a rag doll. I want to be sure you're as all right as you think you are."
"Whatever," Ronon replied.
It took most of the afternoon to walk back to the cave with the portal. John blew out a breath when he saw that the oily black barrier was gone, and he could see sunlight shining through the opening.
"Goodbye, John," he heard Teer whisper and turned around in surprise. "And thank you."
He saw Teyla watching him, and John shook his head as he stepped closer to the open portal.
"We should take the supplies back with us," Elizabeth said with a nod at the various packs and the five-gallon water can stacked against the wall of the cave.
John gave the remaining supplies only a passing glance. He didn't care one way or the other about a can of water and a few rations. The sooner he was out of the sanctuary, the happier he'd be.
"Not you," Carson said sternly.
John turned around and saw Ronon bending down to pick up the five-gallon water can.
"If those ribs are more than bruised, you don't need to be carrying anything heavy." Beckett grunted as he took the heavy water can from Ronon and pushed it into Rodney's hands.
"Gee, thanks," Rodney grumbled as he stumbled back against the sudden weight and adjusted his two-handed grip on the can.
Teyla picked up the medical kit while Carson and Elizabeth grabbed the remaining supplies.
"Let's go home," Elizabeth said, and John didn't need telling twice.
John stepped through the opening and felt himself relax when he didn't end up in excruciating pain. He turned and watched as the others followed him, and as soon as Ronon crossed the threshold, the shimmering forcefield reformed over the opening.
Rodney set down the can, pulled the Ancient scanner out of his vest pocket, and took a step toward the opening, but Ronon blocked his path.
"I just …" Rodney started to say but stopped when Ronon growled and took a step toward McKay. "Never mind," Rodney muttered. He stuffed the scanner back in his pocket, picked up the water can, and stared from John to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth tapped her earpiece and said, "Lieutenant, this is Weir. We're on our way back to the jumper with Colonel Sheppard." She listened for a moment, then nodded. "Understood. Weir out."
"Problem?" John asked.
Elizabeth smiled and shook her head. "Lieutenant Michaels wanted me to know Atlantis is reporting Daedalus left this morning to return to Earth."
"Ahh," John murmured with a nod and a tight-lipped smile. It took him a moment to remember that as far as Weir and the others were concerned, the Daedalus had only arrived a week ago with supplies and personnel, not to mention the mail.
"It's an invitation to a symposium," Rodney explained, holding up a thick piece of paper as the jumper sailed through the 'gate on P2J-621 and gained altitude.
"So?" Ronon said, and John could tell he was unimpressed.
"So?" Rodney retorted and turned in the co-pilot's chair enough to glare at Ronon seated behind John. "It's a big deal. The conference organisers have invited scientists from all over the world, and they asked me to give one of the keynote talks."
John shook his head as he pointed the jumper in the direction they had agreed to investigate first.
"You are planning to give a speech?" Teyla asked.
"Yes," Rodney replied. "And everyone who is anyone in the scientific world is going to be there to hear it."
"I don't see what the big deal is," Ronon said. "It sounds like a boring meeting to me."
"Well, just trust me, it's important," Rodney replied. "I'm a bit surprised …" His voice trailed off as he turned around and stared out the windscreen at the planet below.
John had a cheeky comment about Rodney adding another award to the collection in his quarters at the ready but held his tongue when he noticed McKay's subdued expression. Disappointed Ronon and Teyla weren't more enthusiastic or something else? John wondered with another glance at Rodney.
He swallowed the comment and instead asked, "So what's your speech going to be about?"
Rodney glanced over at him with a shrug. "Not really sure. I haven't published anything in years. That's one reason I was so surprised to get the invitation." He folded the letter in his hand and stuffed it back in his vest pocket. "Kind of hard to write a journal article on zero-point energy or wormhole physics when everything you work on is classified."
"Not to mention extraterrestrial," John added with a smile as he adjusted their course.
"Yeah, that too," Rodney agreed softly, and went back to staring out the window.
Teyla gave John a worried glance. "I am certain your colleagues will be eager to hear whatever it is you decide to give your speech about," she said to Rodney.
Rodney snorted. "I wouldn't be too sure about that," he muttered, but John wasn't sure Teyla heard the comment.
"We could -" John started to say but was interrupted when the HUD flashed up on the windscreen.
"Did you see that?" Rodney asked as he studied the information on the screen. "That energy spike was almost off the chart."
"Yeah, I saw it," John said even as he altered course.
"The MALP didn't find any signs of a civilisation on this planet," Rodney mused. "We need to find whatever is causing these readings. Who knows what sort of technology could be down there."
"Way ahead of you," John replied. He glanced at the HUD, making sure their course matched the area where the spike had emanated.
"John?" Elizabeth said, and John felt her hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Sure," John replied with a tight smile. "I assume the jumper is nearby?"
"It is this way," Teyla replied, and led the way back through the forest.
John followed behind her, letting the others trail along after them. He nodded when they came out of the trees and he saw the jumper parked in the same clearing he remembered using when they had first arrived. Teyla used her remote to open the hatch, and John paused for a moment, running his hand over the side of the ship before he followed her inside.
"Oh, thank god," Rodney blurted. He stumbled up the ramp behind John and Teyla and dropped the can just inside the rear hatch for the jumper. "I think I've lost all the feeling in my fingers."
Carson rolled his eyes as he and Weir followed Rodney aboard and he sat down on one of the bench seats.
Lieutenant Michaels stood as John walked into the cockpit. "Umm, good to, umm, see you, sir," Michaels stuttered as he stared at John's face.
John rubbed a hand over his beard. "Just get us home, Lieutenant," he ordered, and turned back to the rear section of the ship.
Michaels sat in the pilot's chair and powered up the jumper. "Umm, yes, sir."
"You do not wish to fly the ship?" Teyla asked as she sat down beside John on the bench seat opposite Carson and Elizabeth. Ronon sat on Teyla's other side while Rodney glanced from John to Elizabeth and Ronan, then wandered into the cockpit.
John caught the surprised look Teyla exchanged with Ronon and grimaced. He was grateful they had finally shown up, but he was also tired, and all he wanted was to get off this planet and get back to his normal life. He needed a hot shower, a hot meal, and time to wrap his head around everything that had happened in a six-month afternoon.
"'Gate just ahead," Michaels announced.
John looked toward the cockpit, watching as Rodney punched an address into the DHD. Moments later, they were rising up through the gateroom in Atlantis. As soon as the jumper settled and Michaels lowered the rear hatch, John walked out of the ship and felt more of the tension in his shoulders ease.
"Come with me, Colonel," Carson said as he met John at the bottom of the ramp. "You too, Ronon." Beckett glanced at Rodney, Teyla, and Elizabeth and added. "The rest of you need checking over, as well," he added as Rodney walked toward the jumper bay door.
John nodded to Ronon and followed Carson out of the jumper bay. Ronon rolled his eyes but followed without complaint.
Carson entered the infirmary and pointed at an empty infirmary bed. "Sit down over there, Colonel," Carson said to John. "Serafina, if you would be good enough to check Ronon. Take particular care with his ribs."
"Certainly, Doctor Beckett," Doctor Cortes replied, and motioned Ronon over to another bed.
John watched as doctors directed Teyla and Elizabeth to the other side of the infirmary. He also noticed that Rodney had somehow slipped away. He glanced at Carson setting up the Ancient scanner and said, "I feel fine, you know."
Carson pressed one of the colored crystals on the scanner and helped John lie back in the bed. "Your body has been artificially aged," he said and started the scanner. "Even if it's only six months, I still want to make sure we won't have any nasty surprises down the road."
John grimaced at the reminder and lay still as the scanner moved back and forth over the bed.
He sat up a few minutes later when the scanner finished its last pass over the bed. "Well?" he asked as Carson studied the computer attached to the Ancient machine.
Carson glanced up at him. "You mentioned you had two previous encounters with that beast, correct?"
John sat on the edge of the bed and nodded. "I guess after the first time, I was in pretty bad shape. I remember the thing slashing my back, but not much else."
Beckett closed the laptop. "And one of the villagers healed your injuries?"
John nodded. "Hedda. She was a sweet kid."
Carson did a double-take at the news John had been healed by a child. "Well, this Hedda did a good job. I can see where you had a couple of broken ribs, but otherwise, there aren't even any scars."
John remembered the feeling of warmth as Hedda moved her hand over the gashes to his chest and neck after his second encounter. The sensation of his skin reforming over the wounds had been strange and more than a little creepy. At the time, he had wondered if it was the same feeling Rodney had had when John and Yana had healed the burns to his hand and why McKay had never mentioned how disconcerting it felt.
"So I'm free to go?" John asked and hopped off the bed.
"There doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong with you," Carson agreed.
John took a step away from the bed.
"However, I do think you need to schedule some time with Doctor Heightmeyer," Beckett added.
John opened his mouth to argue, but Carson shook his head and spoke over him.
"For you, it has been six months since you saw any of us," he explained in a low voice. "And then you find out it has only been a few hours for us." He stepped forward and rested a hand on John's arm. "If the same thing had happened to Rodney, or Ronon, or Teyla, what would you tell them to do?"
John pressed his lips into a thin frown and looked anywhere but at Beckett. He noticed Teyla and Elizabeth had already left the infirmary, and Doctor Cortes had wrapped up her examination of Dex. John knew Carson was probably right. As much as he'd like to, this wasn't something he could lock away in a box and forget about.
"I'll think about it," he said to Carson.
"Colonel -" Beckett started to say, but John shook off Beckett's hand as Ronon walked over to John's bed.
"Ready?" Ronon asked.
"Yeah," John replied with a glance at Carson.
"Kate can help, Colonel," Carson said as John and Ronon left the infirmary.
"I'm heading for the mess hall," Ronon said as they stopped at the transporter.
John nodded. "I think I need a shower and a shave first," he said, rubbing the beard.
"Suit yourself," Ronon said as the transporter stopped in the section with the mess hall.
"See you later," John said as the transporter doors closed.
A few minutes later, John stepped into his quarters, let the door whisper shut behind him, and blew out a breath. The sun had set, leaving the room in semi-darkness, and John smiled to himself as he mentally turned up the lights. No more candles or oil lamps, he thought as he wandered around the room.
He brushed his hand over the Johnny Cash poster hanging over the bed, then sat on the edge of the mattress. His bed. His desk. He glanced behind him and smiled when he saw the lights from the nearby towers outside the window. John picked up the picture of him as a child standing next to Evel Knievel and ran his thumb over the edge of the frame. That had been a great day, John thought with a smile. Thanks to one of his father's clients, he had spent an unforgettable afternoon with his childhood hero.
He set the photo back on the desk and glanced at the other framed picture on the desk. This one was of Rodney standing next to John in the embarkation room at the SGC right after he'd been promoted. John studied the picture, remembering their celebration dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant Elizabeth had discovered before they had all left to return to the Pegasus galaxy. It had been a good night - some of the best food he'd ever had and surrounded by people who cared about him.
"Living," John murmured as he studied the picture and smiled.
He was glad Teer, Hedda, and the others had achieved their goal of ascending, but their idea of living was entirely different from John's. For him, life was to be experienced, not meditated upon as a stop on the way to something else.
He put the picture down and stood. "Shower, shave, and food," John ordered himself as he walked into the bathroom and stripped out of the rough cotton clothes Teer had given him.
Forty-five minutes later, John stepped out of his room, clean-shaven and wearing a uniform again. A group of scientists walked past him, arguing about how best to survey an alien ocean covered with ice. One of the scientists in the group looked up and stared at John as the gaggle walked past him. John started to follow the group when he noticed the rest of the scientists were now sneaking glances at him as well. They disappeared around a corner, and John heard a few seconds later,
"… some sort of time dilation field on P2J-621," one of the female scientists said.
"Someone said he lived a year in the space of an hour," a male voice added.
"That can't …" another voice started to say but was cut off.
John stopped short and turned around. The last thing he wanted to deal with at the moment was awkward questions and the rumor mill. "Balcony," he muttered to himself. He'd sit outside, soaking in the fact he was home, and then find something to eat once the mess hall had cleared out.
John walked back up the hall, past his quarters, past McKay's room, and stopped in front of the balcony door. Now that the sun had set, it would be cool sitting outside, he reminded himself. Atlantis wasn't like the cloister, where the temperature rarely changed.
"Doesn't matter," John murmured and pushed open the door.
He stepped outside, mentally turned the lights up a little, and leant on the railing, listening to the water break against the pier far below. He felt the last of his stress melt away as he breathed in the salty smell of the ocean and watched as a jumper launched from the control tower, heading in the direction of the mainland.
A chair creaked behind him, pulling him out of the moment. John turned in surprise and found Rodney slouched in one of the chairs backed against the corner of the balcony.
"McKay?" John asked. He pushed himself off the railing and walked over to the other end of the balcony. "What are you doing out here?"
"Oh, umm …" Rodney looked up, and John saw the somber expression on his face before he stuffed something back in his jacket pocket. "Nothing."
John snorted and sat down in the other chair. "You're a terrible liar."
Rodney huffed out a breath but said nothing.
John waited a moment longer, and when it was clear Rodney had no intention of answering him, he let the matter drop. John closed his eyes and let the sound of the waves far below lull him.
"I'm sorry," Rodney muttered after a few minutes' silence.
"What?" John asked, opening his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said again, this time louder. "I know you're mad, and I get it, I do. I should have done something sooner. Should have come after you sooner. So, I'm, umm, sorry."
John sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about what had happened in the sanctuary. That was why he was out here in the first place. Rodney apparently had other ideas.
"If I had been paying attention," McKay continued, "I would have noticed the battery was dead in the camera after only recording what I thought was a few seconds of data. If I had, you wouldn't have been sucked into that portal with no way to get back." He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets, and John heard paper crinkling.
"Once I finally figured out the memory card was full, I had a good idea what had happened, but I needed to be sure. Didn't want to make the same mistake twice." He flashed John a tiny smile. "But I had Ronon yelling at me, mad that I wasn't working faster to rescue you. I get back here, only to have Elizabeth mad at me, telling me she thought I was moving too fast and not thinking about possible consequences."
John noticed the more he talked, the more agitated Rodney became, waving his hands in front of him and shifting in his chair.
"All the while, I knew if we didn't do something soon, we might not get you back at all, but I had to keep wasting even more time explaining that to people." Rodney dropped his hands back in his lap and glanced over at John. "So I get it if you want to be mad at me too."
John sat back in his chair, remembering those first days in the cave, waiting for the others to pull him back through the barrier as his food and water slowly ran out. He had blamed Rodney more than once for leaving him there. Yelling at him over the useless radio. Yelling at him through the barrier, demanding to know what was taking Rodney so long to come up with the answer.
Rodney watched him for a moment longer, then slumped back in his chair. "In the end, it was all just another cheat," he said softly.
John was too tired and hungry to keep up with McKay's mind as he leapt from one topic to another. "What are you talking about?"
"The time dilation field." Rodney glanced over at him. "It was just like the illusion machine we, umm, I, ended up trapped by, and you all ended up stuck inside with me. It was another way for the Ancients to cheat their way to ascension."
"Not sure how that would work," John argued. "The Ancients who entered the sanctuary wouldn't be the ones to ascend. Teer said her people had been in the cloister for generations."
Rodney shook his head with some of his usual enthusiasm and leant forward in his chair. "That's true for humans. We have no idea how long the Ancient's lifespan was."
"Okay, I guess that's true."
Rodney sat back in his chair, his face hidden by the shadow of the wall beside them. "Were you … Were you tempted?" he asked. "If we hadn't shown up when we did, would you have gone with them?"
John shook his head. "We've been over this. I'm not interested in a higher plane of existence. Not right now, anyway. I still have things I want to do on this …" John waved his hand in the air in front of him, "plane."
"But if you kept getting older, if we never found you -"
"Rodney, drop it," John growled. "It didn't happen."
Rodney shifted in his chair, and John heard the crinkling noise again. "What is in your pocket? If you've got a power bar and you're holding out on me …"
"Oh, umm," Rodney pulled a folded piece of paper out of his jacket pocket. "It's the invitation to the science symposium I told you about this morn -" Rodney winced and glanced at John. "Umm, anyway, it's in a week, and the conference is in Rochester, not that far from Niagara Falls. I was going to, umm, ask if you wanted to come too, before," he waved a hand in the space between the two chairs, "everything else happened."
John stood, leant on the railing for the balcony, and stared out at the water. It had been almost a year since he had made that promise that he and Rodney would visit Niagara Falls someday. They had made two trips back to Earth since re-establishing contact with the SGC. Both times something had prevented them from following through with the planned visit to the falls.
John gripped the railing in both hands, remembering a nerve-wracking flight to Nevada in the middle of the night, and then a desperate search in the Colorado foothills after Alex Vance had kidnapped Rodney in retaliation for the death of his brother in Afghanistan.
The last report he'd had from Landry, Vance was still in the wind. Worse, the IOA had uncovered evidence that accounts in Vance's name in the Cayman Islands and in Switzerland had been cleaned out before investigators could seize them. Landry promised they were still doing everything possible to capture Vance but he had all but admitted with the resources now at his disposal, Vance would probably be impossible to find.
John grimaced as he listened to the water far below.
"You know what, it was a dumb idea," Rodney said into the awkward silence. He stuffed the invitation back in his pocket. "Forget I even mentioned it."
John turned as McKay spoke, a denial on his lips, and frowned when Rodney stood from his chair and braced a hand on the wall.
"When was the last time you had something to eat?"
Rodney pushed off the wall and walked back toward the door. "Umm, breakfast, I guess. I was sort of busy the rest of the day."
John glanced at his watch and shook his head. "Come on. I want something to eat that isn't salad," he said and led the way back to the transporter.