He was hot on the trail of a nagging power drain in the southwest sector. It had been driving the scientists crazy for months -- ever since the Wraith siege, in fact, when they'd installed the ZPM and started bringing more systems online, and that pesky little power fluctuation had first shown up. Since they couldn't find anything online that shouldn't be, Rodney had long theorized that it was an incidental side effect of other systems interacting in unexpected ways. The trick was figuring out which ones were doing it and how to stop it. His eyes burned from hours of staring at scrolling fields of numbers on his laptop screen -- but he was so close; he could feel, somewhere just out of reach, that electric snap of understanding that he experienced when all the pieces fell together. Squinting at the screen, he flipped to yesterday's logs and felt a grin beginning to tug at one corner of his mouth. Oh yeah, you stubborn sucker, he thought, I've got you now --
A sharp sting on the side of his head knocked him out of his reverie. Without looking up, Rodney snapped his hand up to catch the thrown object as it bounced, and brought it down in front of his eyes. He knew what he'd see before he uncurled his hand: a small, rolled-up piece of yellow notepaper.
"I said stop that," he grumbled, returning his eyes to the screen.
His answer was another impact, this time a direct score on his ear. Rodney growled and turned a vicious glare on the source of his torment.
Sheppard grinned unrepentantly, rolling another piece of paper briskly between his fingers. "Bored," was all he said.
"And you without your pinecones. How tragic."
The grin broadened. "My aim's better with these." Holding the little ball of paper between thumb and forefinger, he flicked it at Rodney, who winced and ducked. It sailed over his head and bounced on the floor.
Sheppard probably couldn't have thrown a pinecone at the moment if he'd wanted to; he still didn't have the strength to raise his head, let alone his arms. At the moment he was propped up on a pile of pillows, still hooked up to a feeding tube and an alarming array of other medical paraphernalia. The note pad and pencil were in his lap because he'd complained of being bored and wanted to work on some notes for rearranging the off-world teams to better complement their various strengths and weaknesses. Or so he had claimed, although the notepad contained nothing more than a few random doodles and was clearly being put to other, less official uses.
Sheppard was white as a sheet, looked like death warmed over, and should obviously be sleeping and recovering his strength. But would he sleep? No. He had to stay awake to pester Rodney while he was trying to work.
When another little twist of yellow paper ricocheted off his elbow, Rodney finally broke. "Carson! Sheppard's throwing things at me again!"
"You could always leave," Beckett retorted, without sympathy, from the other side of the infirmary.
They'd been back in Atlantis now for almost a week. After a thorough examination, Rodney had been released from the infirmary, but to Beckett's growing irritation, he refused to actually go. He'd leave to eat, shower, change clothes, and periodically to visit his labs and terrorize the scientists for a few hours, but he always came back, laptop in hand, to take up his station on the bed next to Sheppard's. When, after two days, Sheppard had finally woken up and been taken off the ventilator, Carson had hoped that Rodney might actually go somewhere else for a while, but no such luck.
Part of the problem was that both Weir and Beckett wanted to keep Rodney on light duty and restrict his off-world travel until they were positive that there were no lingering side effects from his ordeal -- and, most importantly, that the Wraith had no possible means of tracking him. When he was cleared for full duty, Carson was heard to say loudly, he might stay in his lab and keep out from underfoot for a while.
To which Rodney responded, unsurprisingly, by being even more persistently underfoot than he had been before.
Beckett, with great patience and perhaps a little less speed than absolutely necessary, removed the slide that he was currently studying -- containing smears from cultures of the latest retrovirus variation -- from his microscope and glanced over his shoulder. "Yes, Rodney? Is there a problem?"
"Can't you sedate him or something?"
The one in danger of being sedated at the moment was probably Rodney, not Sheppard, but he was saved by the sudden, timely arrival of a smiling Elizabeth Weir. "Well, hello ... gentlemen ... boys. How are you doing?"
"Oh," Sheppard said, rolling another little ball of paper between two fingers, "I'm peachy."
"He is drugged," Rodney interjected. "Carson's giving him all the good drugs he doesn't give me."
Elizabeth quirked an eyebrow. "He's sicker than you, Rodney." She tossed a book into Sheppard's lap; the Colonel immediately perked up with an "Ah!" of happy surprise. "I just stopped by to drop this off for you."
"Thanks, Elizabeth. Hey, about that other thing we talked about ..."
"Bigger quarters for Rodney? I'm still looking." Seeing that Rodney was staring at her with his mouth open, she smiled and said, "John said it was a condition of getting you to fly the Wraith dart, down on that planet. And I am looking. All of the large rooms near the labs are being used, but I'm currently negotiating for one suite that I think you might like."
Rodney divided his suspicious glare between her and the innocent-looking Colonel. "You told me we weren't going to shuffle living spaces anymore."
One shoulder lifted under her red T-shirt. "Sometimes I make exceptions in special cases. Gentlemen ... Carson ... " And she was off. Elizabeth never stayed for long -- she was much too busy -- but she always stopped in whenever she was nearby, which amounted to a good dozen times a day.
Rodney turned towards Sheppard with a combination of disbelief and amazement. The fact that Sheppard had actually remembered his request was a small warm glow at the pit of his stomach, but he didn't intend to let it show. "Do you have her wrapped around your finger, or what? I've been trying to get her to okay a room-swap for months!"
"You just have to know how to ask for things, Rodney." Sheppard tilted his head to look at the book in his lap.
Rodney leaned over to try to get a not-so-subtle look himself, but he couldn't quite see it. "What's that, anyhow?"
"Just something I asked Elizabeth to pick up from my quarters for me." Sheppard moved a hand over the top of the book, obscuring the title. Rodney could see only that it was a large-ish paperback with a tan cover. He was also uncomfortably aware of how sharply the Colonel's bones thrust out beneath the skin on the back of his hand; he looked as if you could snap him in half, which disturbed Rodney far more deeply than he was willing to admit.
"Curious?" Sheppard teased, raising a finger over the book only to snap it back down when Rodney tried to take a peek.
"Quit being juvenile," Rodney snorted. Obviously, as weak as Sheppard was, the scientist could have freed the book easily, but that would hardly have been fair. Besides, Sheppard was like a kid with a new toy -- he wouldn't last five minutes before he had to show it off. In fact, Rodney was putting his money on five seconds. Three ... two ... one ...
Sheppard moved his hand off the book's cover, and Rodney covered a laugh with a short cough. "It's for you anyway," the Colonel said, scooping his hand under it to lift it. His fingers trembled with the effort, and Rodney took it quickly.
He turned it over and read the title: U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76.
"What the hell is this, Sheppard?"
"Something we probably should have gone over a long time ago." Looking up, Rodney saw that the Colonel's eyes were fixed on him with a stare that was intense and very alert despite the lingering illness and the effects of Carson's various drugs.
"So you're saying I was a liability out there? That's what you're saying?"
Sheppard's voice was quiet. "You know I'm not saying that."
The rage rose up through Rodney's chest, a fury born from terror. He almost threw the book at Sheppard, depositing it roughly on the hospital cot's beside table. "You know what? Fuck you, Colonel." Grabbing his laptop, he stormed out of the infirmary.
Beckett watched him go with a mix of surprise and concern. Schooling his face to a slight smile, he turned to look at an equally startled Sheppard. "And had I known that I could make him leave so easily, I would've sent Elizabeth for that book days ago," he said.
Sheppard flashed a half-hearted smile back, but his eyes kept going to the door of the infirmary. And so did Beckett's.
The first couple of days after they'd gotten back had been ... weird. People stared at Rodney in the halls, murmured shy hellos to him in the mess line. Even the ones who should know better, like Zelenka and Elizabeth, treated him with kid gloves, refusing to rise to even the most obvious verbal baiting. Rodney found himself becoming more and more of a bastard just trying to get everyone to stop being so damn nice to him. He knew it was working when Zelenka lost his temper and called him a string of indecipherable Czech insults in front of the entire science night shift, and after that, normality (such as it ever was) began to resume.
They'd thought he and Sheppard were dead. Everyone had. It was obvious. Teyla and Ronon were really the only ones who had refused to believe it, and that was just through a sort of obstinate denial of reality. Perhaps the worst part was that deep down, Rodney knew that they should be dead, and the fact that everyone seemed to treat him like a returning ghost didn't make it any easier to handle.
He spent the rest of the day in his lab, first wrestling with the power consumption problem, then with a string of other issues that his staff brought to his attention. It had to be a fluke that these people had somehow managed not to blow themselves up during the two weeks he'd been off-world. Idiots. He was surrounded by idiots. He found himself momentarily wistful for the kids, who from all reports were doing fine on the mainland with the Athosians. When the regular supply jumper had come back from the mainland yesterday, the pilot had also brought a bouquet of flowers that Tekka had picked for Rodney. Stupid, sentimental little brat -- this sort of thing was exactly why kids annoyed him, and the pilot's smirk hadn't helped a bit.
The bouquet was currently installed in a beaker full of water, next to his workstation in the lab. The first tech who had been unfortunate enough to mention it -- despite the hasty shushing motions of her colleagues -- had been treated to a twenty-minute tirade and had left the science wing in tears. And there went one more person who wouldn't be giving him any unearned hero worship for surviving certain death, Rodney thought with the warm fuzzy glow of a job well done.
Unfortunately, there was only so long that one could stay in the labs. One by one, his staff trickled off to bed, until all that remained was the skeleton night crew. He would have willingly continued working, but the glowing digits on his computer screen were beginning to swim together, and he'd already caught himself in two elementary mistakes.
Leaving the lab, he drifted through the darkened, nearly empty corridors of the sleeping city. The mess hall was deserted except for a small group of Marines at one of the tables. They looked up and nodded to him when he came in -- and that, too, was wrong, for Rodney didn't expect to be recognized or acknowledged by military personnel outside the small handful that he'd managed to befriend to a degree. But here was yet another batch of Rodney-and-Sheppard worshippers who'd heard fifth-hand rumors of their survival among the Wraith.
It was strange, Rodney mused as he picked up a sandwich from the lighted case along the wall and beat a hasty retreat. For most of his life, he would have loved the notoriety. He was a man who lived for the spotlight -- and it wasn't as if he didn't deserve it, considering that he was smarter than 99.99 percent of the people around him. He didn't want much, only to be acknowledged as one of the smartest and most accomplished people on Earth ... and, strangely, that was exactly what had happened to him in the Pegasus Galaxy.
And now that he had it, the spotlight he'd actively sought all his life, he had found that it didn't matter nearly as much as he'd thought it did. What mattered was Teyla's quiet smile over breakfast, or Sheppard showing him how to handle a P90, or Carson's gentle hands holding him down during a drug-induced seizure, or late-night arguments with Zelenka over some meaningless piece of Ancient technology. He still loved being admired, and he still had a teeny, tiny little fantasy in the back of his head about discovering a world through the gate that worshipped him as a god ... but he'd found that being admired from afar wasn't exactly all it was cracked up to be -- and maybe it wasn't even what he'd always wanted, after all.
He knew, now, why Sam Carter had furiously turned her back on him, at the SGC all those years ago, when she had realized what he'd done -- that he'd condemned her friend to near-certain death in the Stargate crystal matrix. He hadn't understood, then, how co-workers could become friends and friends could become family.
He understood now. And he hoped that someday he could talk to Carter, tell her of the things he'd learned out here, half a universe away. Tell her he understood why she wouldn't abandon Teal'c, even when logic and reason and one Dr. Rodney McKay said that she should.
Eating as he walked, he let his feet carry him without thinking too deeply about where he was going. He didn't realize that he'd arrived at the infirmary until he very nearly ran into Beckett.
"Carson." Rodney tried to peek around his shoulder without being obtrusive about it. "Is, uh, is the Colonel asleep?"
"For the last few hours, yes." Pointedly, Carson added, "He sleeps quite a bit more when you're not around to distract him."
Rodney sputtered but quickly recovered his verbal feet. "I thought you were a great believer in the warm, fuzzy, utterly non-scientific ideal of allowing people to heal surrounded by their friends, family and co-workers."
"When they're not constantly underfoot and keeping my patients from healing ... yes."
"I'm here to work," Rodney protested, holding up his ever-present laptop in demonstration.
"That's strange -- the last I'd heard, you worked in the science wing. I must have missed the memo about you being reassigned to the infirmary. Does that mean you take orders from me now, Rodney?"
"Oh, har de har. The sarcasm runneth over." Rodney rolled his eyes and tried to go around him, only to be blocked. "Okay, now what? Is there a secret handshake to get in?"
"Your quarters are the other direction, Rodney."
"For your information -- are you listening, Carson? Do you even care? -- I can actually get work done here. It's quiet. People aren't constantly interrupting me. I'm convalescing too -- there's nothing strange about wanting to be someplace quiet where I can actually concentrate."
"Oh, don't be daft, man -- you're clinging to him like a limpet. That isn't normal."
"That's completely disgusting, Carson, and clearly you've been spending too much time with your eyes glued to a microscope lately, or you'd have noticed that all of us visit each other in the infirmary; it's what we do."
"Visit, yes. Move in? No. Teyla and Ronon have been getting on with their lives. They stop by to visit, chat and check on him every so often, but they don't feel the need to hover over him. Neither would you, usually."
"I am most certainly not hovering."
Carson's eyes were on him, penetrating and irritatingly perceptive. "Oh really? Then what are you doing?" The doctor's face softened at Rodney's obvious irritation, and he added, "Rodney, I know the two of you went through hell on that planet, and I also know you'll never talk about half of it, even to Kate -- nor do you need to. I understand you don't want to let him out of your sight. But you're home. You're safe. You can let go."
"Leave the analyzing to Heightmeyer, Carson." Rodney pushed past him, his back set like a wall designed to keep prying friends away. He thought he could feel Carson watching him, but when he looked over his shoulder, the man was gone.
He hopped up into the Rodney-shaped spot in a rumpled nest of sheets on the cot he'd staked out as "his", next to Sheppard's, and lay back and got comfortable with the laptop on his chest. All he could see of the other man at the moment was a tuft of dark hair atop a blanket-draped lump. It made him think uncomfortably of a corpse. True, the rhythmic beeping of the monitors would seem to indicate otherwise, but he worked with machines every day and he knew how unreliable they could be. Stupid ... but ... once the niggling worry had curled up at the base of his brain, he couldn't seem to concentrate on the computer code scrolling on his screen. Maybe he should just take a peek at Sheppard, just to allow him to focus so that he could actually get some work done.
It wasn't hovering. It was just being careful. Because you couldn't be too careful; he knew that now.
Rodney set the laptop aside and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed.
"Rodney," Sheppard rasped. "Quit hovering."
"GAH!" He rolled hastily back up onto the bed, glanced about to make sure that no nurses were nearby to have witnessed that little fiasco. To his relief, the infirmary was deserted at the moment except for the two of them. "I'm not hovering," he snapped.
"Sorry -- lurking, looming, whatever you want to call it." Sheppard cleared his throat, coughed, and Rodney started to roll out of bed again.
"Need a drink of water?"
"I've got it," Sheppard retorted, with a suspicious look at him. There was a plastic cup of water on the stand beside his bed -- left by a solicitous nurse or perhaps by Beckett -- and he got a shaking hand around it after a couple of false tries.
Rodney mercilessly battened down the urge to just pick up the damn cup for him. He knew from experience that if Sheppard said he didn't want help, he meant it. Instead, he groaned and dropped onto his back, laying an arm over his eyes. "Carson said you were asleep. That Scottish rat-fink sold me out."
"No, he probably thinks I am asleep."
"And why aren't you?" Rodney twisted his head to the side and took in Sheppard's pallor, the lingering bruised look around his eyes. "You should be."
With an obvious effort, Sheppard rolled over onto his side so that he was able to look easily in Rodney's direction. "Woke up when you came in."
"Well, I'm going to go to sleep now. I suggest you do likewise."
He heard a soft sigh from Sheppard. "You know, I'm serious about doing the wilderness survival training with you. Not because you didn't do well on that planet. You did great, Rodney, really --"
"I don't want to talk about this, Sheppard."
"I just need to know why you don't want to do it." And Carson had called him a limpet? The Colonel just didn't let go.
"I'm a civilian, dammit." Rodney hated falling back on the civilian defense; it always felt as if he was halfway to losing an argument when he did that. "I don't need to know this stuff, and I don't need to take orders from you."
"That's not what's wrong and you know it."
"What are you, my therapist? I certainly hope not. Heightmeyer's a lot easier on the eyes, no matter what half a dozen space princesses have to say about you."
There was a soft, snorted laugh from the bed next to his, then a brief silence that was broken by, "Rodney, seriously. I don't want to make this a condition of going off-world, but I will if I have to. You need to know this stuff. Why aren't you willing to learn?"
What did it take to make the man stop pushing? Rodney sighed and glowered up at the ceiling.
"Because I ..." Damn it, he did not want to talk about this. "I watched you die, do you understand that? I watched you die slowly, one day at a time. The wilderness is full of germs and predators and it's far, far, far from lifesaving medical care." He was alarmed and annoyed to discover that he was trembling. His voice rose and he only remembered to modulate it with a quick glance towards Carson's dark office. "You really think that our little jaunt of the last couple of weeks has made me want to run out into the woods and go camping? Are you insane? Did that fever eat up your goddamn mind--?"
He broke off his babbling at a tug on his shirt, and looked down to discover that Sheppard had reached one long arm across the space between them -- leaning precariously far out from his bed in order to do so -- and seized hold of a handful of Rodney's uniform jacket in order to give it a swift jerk.
"Rodney," Sheppard said, gently. "I'm alive."
"I know you are." Rodney twisted away, just hard enough to break Sheppard's weak grip. He wasn't ready to stop being angry yet.
I'm not finished being angry at you for taking stupid chances, for throwing your life away a dozen times over for everyone you meet. I'm not done being mad at you for worrying about ME when you were the one whose leg was falling off. I'm not done being mad at you for making me cry, you ass.
Sheppard drew his hand back, but still let it trail over the side of the bed towards Rodney. "So," he said in a conversational tone. "When we go back out there -- when we're all cleared for gate travel and back out in the field -- when something like this happens again, I'll just hang around and watch you die instead?"
Rodney was unable to keep himself from flinching. A hit, Sheppard, a palpable hit. "I don't know about you, but I have every intention of not getting culled again anytime in the near future, thanks."
"And you can guarantee that, how?" When Rodney stayed silent, Sheppard gestured with his painfully thin hand. "Every time we go out there, we're taking a huge risk -- you know that. And it isn't just the Wraith. Every time we walk through that gate, there's no telling what might happen. How many times have we been temporarily trapped on the other side, by weather or hostile locals or other circumstances? How long do you think it'll be before we really need to use those wilderness survival skills again?"
"That's why we have you," Rodney snapped. He pulled the thin cotton blanket from the cot over his shoulders. He was suddenly freezing.
Sheppard snorted a humorless laugh. "Yeah, and we've seen how effective I can be." He sighed and leaned back into his pillows, half-closing his eyes in evident exhaustion. "McKay ... every single person on this team, on every team, has to have those skills. I know that, but I've been lax in actually teaching them to you. All it'd take is a few well-aimed bullets or one IED and you'd be alone out there. No me, no Teyla, no Ronon." Seeing Rodney start to shake his head, Sheppard turned his head to the side, hazel eyes snapping fire. "We're in a war zone, Rodney! You can deny it, but that doesn't make it less true. You know we could die out there."
Rodney huddled into the blanket. "I never thought I'd ever hear you admit it," he protested peevishly. "I'm the one who always points out the risks, aren't I? You're the one who goes charging in with guns blazing."
"Then why won't you admit that you need to have the same survival skills the rest of us do, because one of us might not be around to do it for you one of these days?"
Rodney closed his eyes, shocked to discover how close he was to tears.
Because I've found my home and family here. Because, though I'll never say it aloud, I'd rather die myself than have anything happen to them. Because if I stop and think about how close we all live to the edge, it'll drive me insane.
"How do you do it?" He didn't even know he was going to ask the question until the words were out of his mouth.
"Me?" Sheppard seemed equally startled. "Do what?"
"Go out there, every time, knowing ... I mean, I always thought you just didn't ... that you never really understood the risks. That you thought you were invulnerable somehow. John Sheppard the Million Dollar Man."
"What, you mean I'm not?" The grin fell slowly away from his face and eyes when he saw Rodney wasn't buying it. "What are you looking for here, McKay? A magic bullet, a perfect answer? I haven't got it. I'm just a guy who gets shot at a lot."
"I just want to know how you can keep going through the gate, even knowing ..." He trailed off. It was a stupid question anyway.
Sheppard spoke softly, into the silence. "Because I make myself as ready as I can be, and then I just don't think about it. That's how I do it, Rodney."
"I'm not capable of not thinking about anything."
A quiet laugh. "I know. That's why we have you along. So you can think of the things the rest of us aren't thinking about. And seriously, McKay, you should be able to leave the military stuff, the risk-taking, up to the rest of us so you can concentrate on other things. It's our job, not yours. I'm not going to try to turn you into some kind of super-soldier. But knowing that you're capable of handling yourself in a wilderness emergency ... it would make my job easier, knowing that. That's all."
"Oh, just give me the stupid book," Rodney grumbled. He knew what Sheppard could be like when he got an idea into his head. It was easier to just read the damn book and take a couple of survival courses than to put up with the nagging.
"It's by your bed." And that had better not be triumph in that quiet voice, or he was going to pop him one in the mouth, sick or not.
Rodney twisted his head to the side and saw the book lying on his bedside table, where he'd left it after storming out of the infirmary hours ago. "Well, isn't it just. Guess I'll have some light reading at breakfast tomorrow." He turned to see Sheppard still lying on his side, watching him, one hand tucked under his face. "And speaking of the time, it's the middle of the night and Carson is going to sedate us both if you don't get some sleep."
"Looks like you could use some too."
Rodney snorted. He was perfectly fine ... just a little tired. And damn, he was tired, and starting to drift. "Excellent, we have something in common. Good night, Colonel."
He shut his eyes and almost immediately felt his body relaxing. The soft beeping of Sheppard's monitors was hypnotic, lulling him over the edge. He could feel one of his arms slip off the bed -- on accident really; he was just too tired to keep track of all his limbs -- and it was more trouble than it was worth to try to gather it back up again. Then, out of nowhere, he felt a cold hand with an IV in the back of it close over his own and give it a sudden, hard squeeze. Before he could quite believe that the Colonel had invaded his personal space in such an utterly gratuitous way, the hand had withdrawn and he whipped his head around to see Sheppard settling both hands innocently on his chest as if they had always been there.
Rodney ruthlessly fought down the grin that wanted to tug at the corners of his mouth. He was not about to give the idiot that kind of satisfaction. But it must have shown in his eyes, for the warmth was caught and reflected in Sheppard's hazel ones, before the eyelids slid shut and the Colonel's breathing evened out.
Neither of them were awake, a few minutes later, to see Carson Beckett quietly slip out of his office and cross the infirmary without a sound. He paused to look down on his sleeping friends, checking Sheppard's monitors and very gently tugging the blanket higher on Rodney's chest. Then he slipped away, leaving them alone and dialing the lights down with a thought as he left.
The end! We made it!
Whew ... I was expecting this one to be long, but not QUITE as long as it turned out! Thanks so much to all the people who left your wonderful reviews, and to those who beta'd and answered questions and encouraged me. I don't think I'm ready to tackle another long story yet, but I do have some other ideas. This is just too much fun to stop...