Chapter Thirteen

Rodney fled to the deserted corridors of Atlantis and hid. He felt like a dork. He could have just pretended that he hadn't heard Carson, or realized Carson was only protecting Sheppard, but no, he'd over reacted.

Now he had Carson's voice in his ear, compliments of the radio.

"Rodney, I know you can hear me… Can you please just answer me, and let me know if you're okay?"

He kept walking, ignoring the puddles of water as he walked and the dank nature of the barely lit corridor.

"Rodney, if you don't answer me, I'm going to have to inform Elizabeth and then she'll send out a search party for you."

Frustrated, he tapped his radio and responded. "I'm okay. Leave me alone."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Alright. I'm going to leave you alone to work this out for yourself. But if I check in on the Colonel and you're not back… Rodney, I'll be very worried."

Good, thought Rodney. Then he walked some more, trying to get himself under control. Tibs had shaken him so badly it was hard to get rid of the irrational feeling that at any moment the psychopath was going to reappear. Walking around in a moldy corridor that bore a resemblance to the corridor leading to the lab under Machine probably wasn't helping either.

Damn it. This sucked and he just didn't know what to do.

He headed back the way he came, back towards Sheppard's quarters. He guessed some company was better than no company, and maybe if he went back, Carson wouldn't sic Kate onto him.

((--))

Sheppard woke to a nearly dark room, no headache and a damp face. He recalled Carson being in the same room and giving him the tablets and then he was out like a light. The damp feeling on one side of his face was due to the washcloth shifting position, and the fact that he'd been drooling into it.

He propped himself up on his elbows, squinted at the digital clock that told him it was seventeen hundred. Still the afternoon and it felt like the day was wasted.

Looking around, he tried to see if McKay was still there, but the room was deserted. Carson had probably kicked Rodney out to give him some peace.

At least that meant he could take his time in getting organized and not have Rodney blabbing away at him. He went to the improvised curtains and noticed that his dart set was now embedded into the wall, along with the corners of the blankets.

"Great. Thanks, McKay," he said to himself. Then he drew back a blanket acting as a curtain. The light that streamed in was bearable. It was moving into autumn on their hemisphere and consequently the sun was setting just that little bit earlier every day. He decided to remove the blankets all the way, and let the rest of the light in.

He contemplated what he was supposed to do now. He was hungry but didn't trust himself to find his way to the cafeteria and having to wait for Rodney to return so they could actually eat was just a further reminder that he was paying endlessly for the few days he spent in the company of Machine. There was always the option of calling up Lorne and asking him to get a marine to rustle something up, but Lorne would in all likelihood immediately tattle to Carson or Elizabeth. Lorne was one of those infuriatingly loyal behind-the-scenes guys who made sure the CO was healthy and happy in his own unobtrusive way.

Wandering over to one of the bedside cabinets, he opened the top drawer and wondered if he'd managed to keep any power bars in there. He rifled around and found a packet of Kleenex, eye drops, throat lozenges, yet another sudoku book, three ballpoint pens, a Bowie knife (you could never have too many knives) and two power bars. That just left the whole problem of opening the damn things. He had most of his coordination back, but the smaller movements were still proving awkward. After two attempts to open the wrapper by pulling an edge apart, and dropping the bar, he gave up in frustration and used his teeth. He tore one open, managed to roll down the wrapper and then thought twice about biting into it as the so-called 'chocolate' coating had bloomed with a powdery white substance. According to the wrapper, the power bar had expired the year before. Actually, both of them had.

Mind you, he was pretty hungry. How bad could a really old power bar be?

He was about to find out when there was a knock at his door. He figured it was Carson because Carson was always too polite to just barge into someone's quarters, unlike a certain physicist.

The mystery visitor turned out to be Kate.

"Hello, Colonel. Do you mind if I come in?"

He shook his head, realized he was clutching a year-old power bar. Decided he would throw it out into the trash. He turned around, letting Kate into the room and casually tossed the offensive and excessively processed portion of protein into the waste paper basket. He missed, and the power bar fell on the floor.

Kate made herself instantly at home. She was carrying a small backpack, which she removed and placed on a chair. She looked around the room, and Sheppard could see her taking little analysis notes with her eyes based on the detritus strewn around the place.

"Where's Rodney?"

She was trying to ask in a casual manner but from the tone of her voice, Sheppard immediately picked up that perhaps all was not well.

"I don't know. He was gone when I woke up. What's up?"

Kate perched herself on the end of his unmade bed. "Nothing's up. I just came down to see how you were adjusting." She rummaged around in the pack. "I also needed to bring you a couple of things."

She dug around pulled out the peg board that he had vague memories of, and a jar containing a bunch of the fiddly plastic pegs. That was followed by a CD.

Not that he wanted to appear ungrateful but there was only one thing to say to Kate's gifts. "What the hell are those?"

"Remember when I tested you last week?"

Sheppard opted for a non committal nodding of the head, and hoped she'd take it at face value. Kate narrowed her eyes slightly but seemed ready to let him tell some fibs for the sake of getting through the explanation.

"Carson asked me to run some neuropsych tests on you. Just to assess your level of functionality. Memory, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, ability to process information."

He opted for another nod of the head, and faked the need to search intensively for something in his beside cabinet as a distraction because he would probably need it. His little annoying voice, the one that kept kicking him in his butt, said that Kate was about to get medieval on his flight status. Then again, who was he kidding? No way in hell was he in any condition to fly anything – not even a paper airplane. Just another fact that he could add to his growing sense of aggravation.

"The results of the test aren't pretty, but you've definitely come along in leaps and bounds since then. One area that you can definitely help along however is your fine motor skills. When I tested you they were shot. I think you've improved since then, but practice will make it better."

He stopped rummaging. "And?"

"And a really good way to practice, which is mind numbingly boring but useful, is to stick all the pegs into the board and take them out again. Time yourself while you do it."

"You're kidding."

"Not really." Kate handed him the CD. "Get Rodney to load this onto your laptop for you. It's a memory game. It'll improve your recall. Just don't over do it, don't get frustrated and don't let Rodney anywhere near it."

Sheppard grinned. "Yeah, he'd be good at a memory game. He'd also tell me how good he was. Endlessly."

Kate dug around in her pack again. She pulled out some sheets of paper, containing diagrams. Thrusting the sheets into his hand, she seemed slightly embarrassed.

Sheppard studied them, and realized they were maps of the corridors in Atlantis. Bad maps drawn with a black marker but definitely maps.

"I thought you might be having trouble finding your way around, and I realized we didn't have any official maps of Atlantis. Not ones I could follow anyway. I went down to the GIS team and they gave me a bunch of diagrams that show the sewage outlets, the number of lights and power sources. Then they said it would be easier if they could give me a GPS receiver but as no one had bothered to put a satellite in orbit, it was just my bad luck they were still mapping out the land masses on the planets that contain stargates."

He nodded, well aware of what she must have been through. The GIS team was probably right up there with the physicists for the geek factor. Besides, you had to appreciate anyone who, instead of labeling everything, had drawn the cafeteria with a picture that might have been a sandwich and a cup of coffee, the infirmary with a picture of a Band-Aid and a pair of crutches and her own office with a smiley face.

"You don't think the smiley face is a bit delusional?" Sheppard held the sheet up, pointed to the face.

"I like to think that it reflects my wonderful disposition and sunny personality," said Kate. She smiled at him. He couldn't help but return it.

Unfortunately, she seemed determined to stay where she was. He didn't get the sense that she was leaving any time soon. In fact she seemed to be settling down for a more serious discussion.

"I hate to bring this up, but Carson mentioned that you were having a few problems with the shower."

There was an area that neither of them should go. He wasn't about to discuss that problem with anyone at all, thank-you-very-much. There was only so much embarrassment one man could take. Going bat shit in the shower the first time around was bad enough. Having Kate know that he was still freaking out was too much. He reminded himself to have a heart-to-heart with Carson later on.

"I'm good. I don't have a problem," he said. Then he reminded himself that at this point in time, any change in posture at all would give the game away. His tactic required him to look her straight in the eye and lie his head off.

"You're sure? Carson seemed certain that you're pretty conservative with water use these days."

"That was when I was in the infirmary. I'm fine now."

"You've only been out of the infirmary for eight hours."

"I had a shower when Carson left."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Before she could call him on his obvious bending of the truth, Rodney walked in. By the way Kate's eyes lit up it seemed that Rodney had been her true target all along. That was a relief.

McKay walked into the room, took one look at Kate and promptly turned on his heel and started to leave. Kate put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

"Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

"Cafeteria. I'm hungry," Rodney said. Then he removed Kate's hand and headed back towards the door.

"Hey, I'm going with you!" Sheppard was thrilled at Rodney's churlish behavior simply because he could tag along and escape Kate's clutches. He made a move to join McKay.

Unfortunately Kate stepped in front of the door, and held up her hands in a signal to halt.

"Okay, everyone just take a deep breath and stop what they're doing."

Sheppard did as he was told. Rodney too, except he wasn't exactly still. He was rocking slightly on his feet.

"She's tiny. I bet if you got one arm and I got the other, we could just lift her out of the way," whispered Rodney.

"I think she can hear you," Sheppard whispered back.

Kate crossed her arms and seemed to have dropped her famously neutral look to go for annoyed. "Rodney, you're scheduled for a session with me tomorrow morning. I expect you to be there. Colonel Sheppard, you're in the afternoon."

He opened his mouth to argue his case but she stopped him cold.

"No, 'I'm good', no 'I'm great' and no, 'I have other things to do'. Neither of you can get out of this. Carson ordered it and Elizabeth signed it off."

Rodney seemed to be opting to push his luck. "So what happens if we don't turn up? Are you going to throw us in the brig?"

The feisty Rodney was back. Sheppard tried to remember when McKay had started acquiring such a bad attitude. "What he said," said Sheppard. Just to offer some back up.

Kate sighed, crossed her arms. "No, you don't get thrown in the brig but I did hear Elizabeth mention the fact that neither of you will get back on duty until I cleared you."

Rodney was back to his usual operating mode of indignant. "That's outrageous! Do you know what Zelenka will do to my lab in my absence? He'll let the underlings run amok and next thing I know one of them will blow something up."

"Then if you don't want the lab to blow up, you should make an effort to turn up in my office," replied Kate smoothly. She turned and palmed open the door. "I'll see you later. Colonel, remember to get Rodney to load up that CD."

And she was gone.

Rodney went and sat down on his bed, looking disheartened. "I'd like to know what lunatic thought we should bring along a counselor slash psychiatrist on this mission. Did anyone consider she's probably nuts herself?"

He considered that was a pretty low blow, even for Rodney. Part of him thought he should defend Kate a bit, even if he didn't exactly think anything of her chosen profession.

"She's just trying to do her job."

"She should go and do it with other people. People who need her."

Sheppard copied Rodney, and sat down on the edge of his own bed. "If we don't need her, I hate to think who does."

"You're defending her? Since when have you been a Heightmeyer fan?"

He sighed, flopped backwards so he could stare at the ceiling, rather than McKay's miserable countenance. "I'm not. I'm just feeling guilty for giving her such a hard time."

Rodney seemed to find his admission of guilt amusing. "Guilt. Hah. Kate's going to have a field day."

"Shut up, McKay."

"Good come back. Did you practice that all day or just come up with it now?"

"Just now. Impressed? I know I am."

He was about to say something else when McKay's stomach let out an alarming growling sound and that reminded Sheppard that he was also in serious need of something to eat.

"We should go to the cafeteria."

"Yeah," replied McKay, uncharacteristically taciturn for a change.

Without another word, they left the room.

((--))

Carson was updating his notes on Machine while eating a collection of little pink cupcakes he'd snagged from the cafeteria and drinking a cup of tea. The chef had started producing a selection of cakes and biscuits for those team members of the former British Commonwealth who had the occasional pining for a decent morning or afternoon tea.

He liked the pink cup cakes. Today he decided that to hell with decorum and instead of taking one, he'd taken six and scampered back to his office on the pretext he was sharing them with staff. Not.

The under utilized selfish part of him had told him that his empathetic, caring and sharing, regimented side could go hide for a while and his undisciplined, seldom seen side could come out and load up on sugar. After his experience in Machine, he deserved it. There was also the small matter of having yelled at Rodney. Not his best move. Sometimes the only way to get rid of a bothersome memory was to try drowning it in sucrose or alcohol.

Carson was stuffing his face with his third cup cake and feeling a tad sick when Kate strolled in. She gave him a curious look.

"You have, uh, frosting on your nose." She made a gesture to her own nose to indicate where he should wipe with the paper napkin.

"Oh. Right you are. Let me just get that," he replied and tried to hide his embarrassment as he removed the offending material.

Nothing ever slipped by Kate. She sized up the plate and the crumbs and the three remaining cakes.

"Can I have one?" She reached out a hand and Carson couldn't help but show his displeasure at one of his precious cakes being consumed by someone else with a slight pursing of his lips.

Of course, rather than say something and appear to have lost his mind he said, "No, go right ahead love. They're very nice."

She took one and seemed to be waiting for him to crack up and start screaming at her audacity in taking one of his cakes.

"You'll be pleased to know that Rodney arrived back safe and well but not in a great mood."

"That's good," he replied. "That's he back and he's okay." Because it was. It meant he wouldn't have to explain that Rodney had gone missing because the famously caring Carson Beckett had yelled at him. He'd told Kate that Rodney has stormed off in a huff. He just hadn't mentioned why. Then again, right now, he just wished she'd stop eating his cupcakes.

"Carson, is there anything you'd like to talk to me about?" She asked the question in an even tone of voice, as if she was asking him about a movie he'd seen.

He paused and thought that perhaps he did. He wasn't tortured by Machine, but getting stuck in her for what seemed a life time had spooked him more than he cared to admit. Besides, he'd been initially distracted by worrying about Sheppard and McKay. His own stress had been firmly held in the background for a while but it was now definitely making itself known, especially to Rodney McKay.

"Aye. Come to think about it, I have been feeling a bit off kilter of late."

"I read your initial notes. It can't have been pleasant."

Carson shrugged. "That's probably the understatement of the century."

Kate finished off the cake and brushed the front of her shirt to get rid of the crumbs. "Feel up to a walk on the pier? The sunset always looks good from there."

He smiled at her, decided to leave the rest of the cakes for whoever wandered into the office.

"Aye. Why not. I can do the rest of my work when I get back."

They headed out together and as Carson walked with Kate down the corridors, he thought that even this one simple thing made him feel normal again.

For him, at least, normality was a relatively easy thing to obtain.

((--))

Cafeteria. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Rodney scanned the menu board. There was nothing truly stunning on offer, and the kitchen had obviously run out of flour again because it was back to Jell-O for desert. The pink cupcakes the chef had started making were also gone.

He nudged Sheppard. "That'll teach me to get my hopes up. Jell-O does not a happy Rodney make."

Sheppard didn't reply, just squinted at the board, shifting to his left foot. "Um…"

"What's wrong?"

"Crap." Sheppard was now trying to concentrate on the board, obviously trying to read what was there and failing.

"Crap?

Sheppard lowered his voice, clearly embarrassed. "I can't read this stupid board. Well, I can but as soon as I do, I forget it."

Rodney felt a surge of irritation at yet another sign of Machine's heel prints all over Sheppard's brain. He reminded himself that it wasn't actually Sheppard's fault, but his own problem. His own guilt at not being able to defend Sheppard and a bigger guilt at not being able to defend himself against Tibs. He tried to keep his reaction to a minimum. "No problem. Uh, it's a choice of lasagna, grilled chicken, or seafood casserole."

Sheppard nodded, and they got into the queue and shuffled along, the plates being loaded down with an assortment of food. Rodney went for the lasagna, purely for the comfort, and Sheppard went for grilled chicken, salad and the Jell-O, which explained why Sheppard was half his size.

They sat down at a spare table. Rodney regarded Sheppard's plate. "You eat like a woman on a permanent diet."

"You eat like a retired construction worker."

Rodney tried pretending he was insulted, but couldn't and suddenly found himself laughing with a mouthful of lasagna. He only just managed to keep his mouth closed.

They worked their way through their meals. Rodney finished his, but Sheppard lagged halfway through, the venture being too much for him.

"Come on. We'd better get back. Carson's going to have a fit," said Rodney.

"When does he not?" Sheppard stood up slowly, briefly balancing against the table. An action that Rodney didn't miss.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm good," responded Sheppard automatically before stopping himself. "Just got dizzy there for a second. Carson warned me that dizziness might be on the agenda."

"We'd better get back so you can lie down."

"Yeah… For once, I'm not going to object. I can't believe I need another nap. I've only just managed to wake up."

"I can't believe you admitted it."

Sheppard paused, seemed to be considering his next statement. "At the moment, and as much as I hate to admit this… You're about the only one I trust."

Rodney nodded but didn't understand why Sheppard would bother to trust him. Not after Machine. He didn't want to say that though, didn't want to go into some long meandering speech about his own problems. So instead he said, "Yeah. Uh, same here."

They slowly made their way back to Sheppard's quarters. Rodney hoped they didn't need to call Carson because he was going to be hopelessly pissy at them if he had to make two early house calls for Sheppard in a day.

((--))

Carson knew that Sheppard and McKay were in the cafeteria about five seconds after they entered. One of his lab technicians had gone down there to grab a very, very late lunch, seen them, seen Sheppard's reaction upon standing up and radioed Carson. Discreetly of course.

Sheppard and McKay, not really familiar with the girls and guys down in the labs, wouldn't have taken much notice.

He'd been half way around the pier with Kate, talking about Machine and what it was like being trapped in a giant festering wound for an organism when the call had come through. He excused himself, promising Kate that he would finish off his discussion with her later. But even that short talk had been enough, and he found himself feeling slightly calmer simply because she'd listened to him.

His next tactic was to play dumb. It wasn't the time to start berating them and he'd learned his lesson after loosing his self control and yelling at Rodney. He'd promised them he'd come back and check on them, so he guessed he would just tell them that he was a little early.

He was outside Sheppard's quarters, along with a med tech carrying the portable EEG. Hooking Sheppard up for eight hours would help him determine how much, if any, of the effects from Machine were wearing off.

He sounded the door chime, and then entered. The room was back to semi-darkness again. Sheppard was curled up on his bed; Rodney was sitting on his own bed, apparently trying to read War and Peace.

As Carson entered, Rodney put his fingers to his lips, made a 'shushing' gesture.

"He's nearly asleep. Don't disturb him," whispered Rodney.

Carson crossed to the bed. Sheppard laid there, eyes half closed, but snapped back to attention at Carson's entrance.

"I'm awake, not sleeping," he said fuzzily. Then sat up. "What'd I miss?"

"Nothing," said Carson. "I just came into check on you and wire you up to the EEG."

Sheppard slumped back onto the bed, "Goody. I miss being attached to monitors. You know, the wiring makes it so much easier to move around, and it's very comfortable."

"That was sarcasm, wasn't it?" Rodney had put the book down.

"How'd you guess?"

Carson shook his head at the encouraging exchange and thought that maybe he had been right to put them together. While the med tech hooked up Sheppard he took the opportunity to speak to Rodney. He gestured to Rodney to step outside into the corridor, out of Sheppard's earshot.

"I know this is a little late, but I just wanted to apologize," said Carson. "You've been through a lot, and I shouldn't have raised my voice."

Rodney shrugged, once more got that strange look on his face. The one that said it was a topic that was closed to discussion with Carson. "You weren't too know."

"I did know. Ronon told me about finding you. He won't go into any detail but he did say if I needed to know anything, to ask you about Tibs."

Rodney's mouth quirked. "He promised me that he wouldn't rat me out."

"Ronon was clearly concerned about you. Brother Tibs was clearly insane," said Carson.

"No, shit."

"I'm sorry for whatever you had to go through."

Rodney's head started dipping down, staring at his shoes, his shoulders rounding up into a hunch. "I didn't know what else to do. I had to make sure we survived, and I…" He stopped, still concentrating on his shoes. "I don't want to talk about this any more."

With that, the scientist turned and went back into Sheppard's quarters. Carson followed, not offering any more comment. It was a start, he guessed. He just hoped that Rodney would talk to Kate about it, and if not Kate then at least talk to Sheppard.

Sheppard had been hooked up to Carson's satisfaction, the EEG unit happily showing what passed for the pilot's version of consciousness. Sheppard looked annoyed.

"What am I supposed to do if I need to take a leak?"

"Give the night shift a call and they'll come and reconnect you back up. Or Rodney could do it. I'm pretty sure he could figure it out."

Rodney regarded the unit with disdain. He picked up War and Peace again. "Two contacts on each temple. Oh. So difficult. So, so difficult. I'm not sure if my brain can cope…"

"Okay, so that's a yes then," said Carson, trying for a piece of normality. "Right, I'm going to leave you two alone and I'll be back tomorrow morning first thing. Remember, any problems at all, call the infirmary straight away. Dr. Paul is on duty tonight."

"Yes, mother," said McKay. He didn't look up from the book.

Carson didn't reply. They needed to keep working it out for themselves and his presence wouldn't help.

((--))

Sheppard woke up abruptly, on the verge of a scream, covered in sweat. He pushed himself up, ripped off the EEG.

Rodney was already awake. He was still quietly reading War and Peace, using a tiny reading light that could be clipped onto the cover of the book.

"Nightmare?"

Sheppard nodded, got up and padded into the bathroom to relieve himself, and to get a glass of water.

When he came out, Rodney was still reading, seemingly intent on not prying, but at the same time, understanding exactly what he'd been going through. Come to think of it, had Rodney even bothered to try to sleep?

He didn't ask that question however. He opted for a more innocent one because he couldn't get himself to focus on the digital clock. "What's the time?"

"Just after midnight."

He climbed back onto the bed, took a sip of water and placed the glass back onto the table. His radio set went off. Someone had figured that the EEG was disconnected. Rodney reached over, took the radio set from him.

"Let me," said Rodney. Sheppard heard a one sided conversation. "Yeah, no, he had to get up. Yeah, don't worry. I'll do it. No, don't send someone over." Rodney handed the radio set back to Sheppard. "The ever vigilant infirmary gnomes noticed their signal disappeared."

"It's great to feel loved." Sheppard held up to two leads, gestured to Rodney. "You want to hook me back up?"

"You can do it yourself if you want. It's easy. Just stick either one on your temple. It's Ancient tech, it'll do the rest."

Sheppard nodded, did as he was told. They seemed to stick. The monitor started showing spiky patterns that seemed to indicate that his brain was functioning. "This is going to rapidly piss me off."

"Tell me about it."

Sheppard gestured at his book, the one that Rodney seemed to have temporarily claimed as his own. "You planning on reading the whole thing while you're on leave?"

"Were you?"

"I can't read the cafeteria menu board. I think a weighty novel by a famous Russian author is out for the time being."

"If it's any consolation, you're not missing much," replied Rodney. "Tolstoy believes in taking his time."

"Great, I bring the world's thickest, most boring book."

"Think of it as your very own personal Mt. Everest."

Sheppard didn't reply, just yawned. "I think I'm going to try going back to sleep."

"Don't let me stop you," said Rodney and without any further conversation, when back to reading Tolstoy's master piece.

It bothered Sheppard. Rodney normally wasn't this quiet, or to the point and he'd seemed to have gone from blabbing all the time, to not bothering. Sheppard couldn't quite think of a way to broach the subject. He wasn't any good at sharing and caring, and he didn't think Rodney was either.

He couldn't think of another thing to say, so he opted for trying to go back to sleep.

((--))

Rodney woke up with a crick in his neck, War and Peace still in his lap, sunlight streaming into the room and the sounds of cussing from the bathroom.

"God damn it! Fuck! Get it to-fucking-gether Sheppard."

His ears were shriveling just listening to it. Sheppard could curse up a storm when he wanted to, but this was an epic, even for Sheppard.

He hauled himself off the bed, rubbed at the back of his neck. The bathroom door was closed, so to be able to hear Sheppard's mutilation of the English language meant that Sheppard was putting some serious effort into the volume.

Tentatively, he knocked on the door. He probably really didn't want to know what the hell was bugging the pilot, but then again, the guy could be in trouble.

"Uh, Colonel? Do you need some help?"

The cursing abruptly stopped. Rodney could hear the shower running.

"No. I'm good," said the disembodied voice.

"Are you sure? You don't sound good."

There was another moment of silence before the door abruptly opened. Sheppard stood there, clutching a towel around his waist and completely dry. The shower however, was still running. Apart from the fact that he was mostly naked, Sheppard also looked really, really pissed off.

It didn't take Rodney more than a second to piece together why, because he'd seen the result of the attempt at taking a shower in the infirmary. However, even McKay could be discreet, so he didn't bother to be the first one to broach the subject. Besides, Sheppard looked fit to explode from the frustration.

As he stood there staring at Sheppard, and Sheppard staring at him, steam billowing from the doorway, he wondered if it wasn't just easier to make an excuse and get breakfast instead.

"Aren't you going to ask me what happened?"

Rodney shook his head. "I wasn't planning on it. Unless you wanted to tell me."

"I can't get into that stupid shower. I told Kate I was okay. That I could. She's going to call me on that bluff because I know how her evil counselor mind works. If I could just get in the freaking thing, then I didn't lie and she'd leave me alone."

"How long did it take you to come up with that convoluted logic?"

"Since I woke up. An hour ago. It took me thirty minutes to convince myself to turn the shower on."

"Are you in one of your post Machine moods?"

Sheppard rolled his eyeballs. "Yes, probably. Your point?"

It was then that Rodney had an epiphany of sorts. Maybe the guilt would go away if he put more effort into helping Sheppard. That would make sense. That might have been why Carson put them together. Maybe helping Sheppard would be a good distraction from the thoughts in his head that just kept going around and around like a dog trying to lie down in the most comfy spot.

Not that he'd ever had to tackle a phobia before, but no one could accuse Rodney McKay of not being a creative thinker. "Okay, what freaks you out about the shower? The temperature, the whole soap and shampoo thing or both?"

"Both."

"Then if one factor was removed, the other factor might not be an issue either."

Sheppard narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Maybe. By the way, feel free to speed this up so I can get dressed."

"I'd be against suggesting you don't use soap or shampoo. But there's no reason the shower can't be cold."

The pilot wrinkled his nose. "Cold showers. I'm flashing back to training."

"Just don't stay in there long enough to get hypothermia. Then you didn't lie to Kate and also, you could work you way up the temperature scale if you want."

He watched as Sheppard's mood abruptly changed again. At least the mood swings didn't seem to last long any more. "This is probably one of the dumbest ideas you've ever had, but I'm willing to give it a shot."

With that he closed the door. Rodney figured he probably should stick around, and feeling slightly perverted, he stood outside the door, just in case he had to rescue a suddenly freaked out Sheppard.

"HOLY CRAP!"

Okay. Sheppard had obviously managed to get into the shower. That was a good sign. There was some more generalized yelling associated with the cold water and five minutes later, the shower was off.

Another five minutes passed and Sheppard emerged dressed, shivering, and trying to towel dry his hair. Rodney grabbed a blanket from a bed, gave it to Sheppard, who wrapped himself up and tried to get warm.

"That was a terrible idea," said Sheppard.

"But you're clean and you got in the shower. So actually, it was a great idea."

Sheppard smiled through chattering teeth, "Yeah, maybe it was an okay idea."

McKay paused, feeling weirdly disjointed. One crisis solved, but now he was back to feeling like he was swimming around in circles.

There was no further conversation until Sheppard dropped his gaze down to the floor and seemed to be contemplating making a statement. "I am so fucked up."

Yeah, well, he could related to that. "If it's any consolation, I can join you in the fucked up stakes," said Rodney.

Sheppard gave him a curious look. "You have been kind of quiet lately. Quiet for Rodney McKay anyway. How come?"

Since Sheppard had asked, there didn't seem much point in trying to hide it. After all, Sheppard had unwillingly let Rodney see his shower phobia not once, but twice. It didn't seem fair to lie when it came to his own paranoia. "I'm worried that a psychotic monk is going to come back and beat me up again."

"Do you think he survived?"

"No. But that doesn't stop me from worrying."

"I know what you mean." Sheppard paused. "I hate to say this, but Kate is probably right. You should really talk to her when you see her this morning."

Rodney knew he was right. Knew Kate was right. But that didn't get him around the dreadful fear that seemed to permanently clench at his heart. "I like Kate. But this time, I just… I don't know. I don't want to talk about it. For a while anyway. Until I get it sorted in my head." Rodney seemed to be unable to find the right words, so instead opted for humor. "I think that's a big dose of irony right there".

Sheppard nodded his head in sympathy. "I just want it to be back to normal. I do normal by pretending it never happened."

"Does it work?"

"Seems to. Most times. Except for the nightmares."

"I don't know if that's such a strong recommendation."

"Yeah… Well, I don't know what else to do."

That made both of them.

((--))

Sheppard had trudged off to Kate's in the afternoon with great reluctance. Rodney had come back from his session looking pale and refused to speak to Sheppard for the rest of the morning. Instead, he'd muttered something about needing to go for a walk and Sheppard hadn't seen him since.

That didn't bode well for his own little Heightmeyer heart-to-heart. He was sitting on her couch, staring down at the patterns on the floor, waiting for her to begin.

"Did Rodney load the CD for you?" Okay, so she was going to start on a neutral line of questioning.

He shook his head. "No. I haven't asked him yet."

"Have you had a go at the peg board?"

He shook his head at that as well.

"Okay. You need to practice or you're going to slow your recovery down."

"Yes, mom."

She seemed unfazed by his sarcasm. "Let me know how long each attempt takes you."

"Absolutely." He paused, looked down at the floor again, contemplating whether he was going to get the brush off for his next question, and asked it anyway. "What'd you do to Rodney?"

This startled her. "What do you mean?"

"He wasn't exactly in a chipper mood when he got back."

"I don't discuss my client's cases."

"Sure you do. I bet you and Carson have a regular gab fest all the time."

"He's a fellow professional." She seemed a teeny bit peeved at his question.

"Look, you can't expect to stick me and Rodney together, and when you've put him in a foul mood, not clue me in on what's going on. How am I supposed to figure out whether I should worry or not?"

Kate considered his request for a moment. "All I can tell you is that after a very long conversation about his cat, we moved onto discussing events on the planet."

"I was hoping for specifics."

"Let's just say that Rodney is dealing with issues related to torture."

No revelation there either. Rodney had intimated it without actually saying the words and Sheppard knew that McKay hadn't wound up with a messed up face because it had been rearranged courtesy of some botched plastic surgery. However, Kate wasn't going to be pushed any further on the matter and he knew he couldn't avoid talking either. Actually, he took that back. He could clam up and refuse to speak another word. But they'd keep ordering him back to see her, much like he'd been ordered to visit the combat stress teams after Holland's death and his own torture.

He knew what Rodney was going through. Of course he did. He knew all about mind numbing fear that didn't so much shut you down, as cast a veneer of suspicion over everyone and everything. You were always trying to act normally while waiting for the shit to start. You were permanently preparing for the hurt to begin again.

God, it was hard. It was hard every single damn time and he was sick of it all. But he also understood that maybe once more he had to be the responsible one. He needed to get off-world, and he needed to fly a jumper and he wanted McKay to be part of his team again. Neither of them was going to make it that far if they didn't over come the fear that told them if they talked, it was just going to lead to yet more betrayal.

He sucked in a deep breath, laced his hands together so they wouldn't move. Stared at the back of his hands. Then he started.

"She reminded me of all the women in my life that I'd rather forget."

((--))

Tibs voice was mixed up with Machine. Tibs wanted him to obey, completely and utterly, and if he didn't Tibs would make sure he paid the price. He was sitting in the control room, his hands hovering over a panel and Tibs was standing behind him.

The stargate was working. Sheppard appeared to be stuck in the event horizon. A leg trapped, half in, half out, like an insect glued to fly paper.

"Shut it down," demanded Tibs.

"No! I shut the gate down with Sheppard trapped on the event horizon, he'll lose his leg!"

"Remember what I told you? I expect you to obey me. What do you want – for Sheppard to lose a leg, or for me to go down there and work on him? He can't get away, so he'll be mine to play with as long as I like."

Rodney could feel Tibs breathing on his neck, the breath hot and disgusting and he wanted very much to turn around and slug Tibs, but he couldn't. He could only sit there, paralyzed and stupid, being forced to make choices he shouldn't have to make.

"I won't do it!"

"Yes, you will. Because you know what I can do to a person."

Tibs was right. He'd do what he was told because he knew that with Tibs it was pain now, or a slow death later. His hand hit the control panel. The stargate shut down.

Sheppard fell backwards, and started screaming. Blood flowed everywhere.

Rodney woke up. Oh, Christ, Tibs was here. He was sure of it. He bolted out of his bed, saw a dim shape in the room, thought, I have to get out.

"McKay! Calm down! That's an order."

A voice, one that he knew, was yelling at him in his best command tone. Hey, he was civilian. He didn't have to take an order if he didn't want to.

"Huh?"

The figure in the room had moved closer to him, the EEG monitor having flat lined again. "I said, you should calm down and you need to wake up a little more."

He knew that voice. Sheppard. Okay, he was back on Atlantis and Sheppard had both his legs and Tibs was dead. Yes, definitely dead.

"Sorry. Bad dream."

"Hey, been there and done that."

Rodney slumped back onto his bed, Sheppard turned the lights up a fraction, just so they could make each other out more clearly, then sat down on the edge of his own.

He rubbed a hand across his eyes, tried to get rid of the feeling that Tibs was currently living under his bed. His visit to Kate was still raw in his mind and after he'd exhausted himself aimlessly walking around the pier, he'd come back to the room, eaten far too much at the cafeteria, along with Sheppard, and then they'd both flaked out. Only for a certain monk to start tap dancing around in his subconscious.

He opened his mouth and blurted out a question. "What was it like in Machine?"

Sheppard startled slightly at his question. "Why do you want to know?"

"I'll tell you my freakish nightmare if you tell me yours."

Sheppard let out a long breath, clearly having the same debate Rodney had about sharing their experiences. Then again, it made sense that they were the only ones who could really understand what the other was going through. Being forced to tell Kate wasn't the same thing. They'd both been there, both on the receiving end, in different ways.

"It was like… She knew everything about me and even though she did, she wouldn't back off. It was like she was making me talk and I didn't want to but…" He stopped, waited for Rodney to call him a lunatic.

"I had the opposite problem. Tibs hated me talking and spent his hours trying to find ways to make me shut up that didn't involve killing me."

"I don't remember much about him."

"He was the one obsessed with dunking you in the bath."

"Oh. Him. He was definitely weird."

"Yeah. He was the one that stuck my head in that cage thing so I couldn't talk."

"How bad was it? Did it hurt?"

"It wasn't so much that it hurt – it was the humiliation that got to me."

Sheppard nodded in understanding. "She kept poking around. There was a lot of stuff I'd tried to forget about and I was doing okay. Now it's all back, like it happened a few days ago. It hurts. In a different way."

Rodney shifted around on the mattress, pushing himself back against the pillows. "You talked about stuff off and on, when you were back in the Seer's room. Mostly you just fought everyone, like you were scared to death of being hurt. But it seemed it wasn't by us… By someone else?"

Silence. Sheppard did not respond, or was considering carefully whether he should risk that much. Rodney could understand it. There were plenty of incidents in his own past he never wanted to share with anyone. Health professionals had all that sharing and caring stuff happening but they never seemed to realize that if you got burnt enough time on the trust front, the chances of ever talking about a traumatic incident again were negligible.

Sheppard shifted restlessly, turned away from Rodney to lie down on the bed. The radio set was beeping again. He answered it. "Okay. I'm hooking myself up later. Later."

He threw the radio set to one side of the room. Sighed. "You know, there's a point when it's just easier to pretend that everything's okay, even when it's not."

"Yeah…"

"Yeah?" Sheppard seemed surprised that Rodney understood this. Then again, maybe Sheppard and himself had a lot more in common than either of them wanted to admit. They just handled their disappointments and scarring in a different manner.

Rodney took a deep breath before he began to talk.

"If I came home with anything but straight A's on my report card, you should have heard my father. He'd yell at me for not trying hard enough. Huge lectures. He would tell me I wasn't living up to my potential. He'd always say, 'One day you're going to do something special. I'm not going to let you ruin your life'. I got to the point where all I did was study. I went to university when I was fourteen. By that time I was on the verge of a breakdown."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. My mother was the one that stepped in. She took me out of school. My father went ballistic. She walked out with me, took me on a vacation for three solid months. Dad relented, paid the hotel bills, maybe because he realized his little genius was about to spontaneously combust."

"What about Jeannie?"

"She was daddy's little girl. He doted on her and didn't seem to expect so much from her. She was pretty much free to choose whatever career she was most comfortable with."

"So you weren't upset at the waste of her talent when she chose motherhood over a career in science."

"No. I was jealous that she'd managed to get a family of her own. Being pissy about the lack of a science career was a cover. What everyone expected me to say."

Sheppard didn't reply. The silence came back. At least there was one fact that Rodney would be sure of. Sheppard was never going to repeat this. Yeah, he may have teased Rodney, but it wasn't about anything important. He could keep his mouth shut because he was so practiced at it.

He heard Sheppard also take a breath. Presumably for much the same reason. A deep breath before launching into telling a secret. A story with sharp corners, that up until now, only Sheppard had ever known.

"My mother died when I was ten. In a car accident. She was nuts and I think it was probably suicide. But my father had spent so much time supporting her that when she died, there was a big hole and my father didn't know what to do. I think he kept going but the grief and guilt killed him inside. He got depressed. Then he got angry. I was the closest thing he had to hand to take it out on."

"Shit. I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about. It happened and the past can't be changed."

Rodney didn't know what else to do so he sat there, and twiddled his thumbs and then moved to idle speculation. "I wonder what it's like to have a nice life."

"A nice life?"

"You know. Nice childhood, nice parents, nice job."

"I hear nice isn't all that great."

"I got invited to a weekend sleep over when I was seven. I think they thought they should invite the weird McKay kid over so that it wasn't obvious that I was being left out of a neighborhood event. For two full days I kept wondering why no one was making anyone stay in their rooms and letting everyone eat sugary food. It so threw me, I went and got the dictionary from the bookshelf and sat and read it."

"Thus confirming that the McKay kid was weird."

Rodney snorted with laughter. "Yeah. All the other seven year olds are running around hyped on sugar, pretending to be pirates and I'm sitting on the couch diligently reading my way through all the words starting with 'M'."

"We really are fucked up. Both of us."

"I guess we are. No getting away from it."

"Kate's gonna want us to blab some more about our little trip in wonderland with the Mad Hatter Tibs and the Queen of Hearts," said Sheppard.

"Yeah. Let's just agree that we give each other space after the event."

"I think… I think we'll get there," said Sheppard, winding down and trying to put a positive spin on things. "Six weeks from now, everything is going to be back to normal."

"As long as you don't give up on showering completely. I'm not sticking around a team leader that stinks."

Sheppard laughed. "You just need to hang outside the door a few times until I knock my new phobia into submission."

"I can do that. It's not like I have anything else to do."

"See. Back to normal in no time. Carson and Kate will be happy and we can just go on our merry way."

"Yes. Great idea. Back to normal."

And it was. Because a faked normality was better than nothing.

He closed his eyes. An image of Tibs flashed before his eyes. He didn't open them, but chanted to himself that Tibs was dead.

They would get through this because they had survived bugs, and Wraith, and Genii, and Replicators. Because they'd survived their own personal tragedies before they even got to Atlantis. They would make it because they had each passed through enough fires to know that survival would mean some part of them would be irrevocably changed and some parts would remain the same. That's just the way it was.

He let out a breath.

Tibs was dead.

He inhaled.

Sheppard was alive.

He exhaled.

He was alive.

He inhaled.

They would keep going no matter what.

The END.