Author's Note: I know - it's been done before. I started this story before I knew how very very often it's been done before - and before I'd seen all the episodes. This is my take on a familiar theme - and I chose to write it completely from John's point of view. I hope you enjoy it!
By Gillian Middleton
The planet was cool and green, the dank darkness of the forest almost primeval. Sheppard led the party through the trees, glancing back every now and again to meet Ronon's eyes and then quickly looking at the four Genii scientists who were guiding them. His team mates knew he had spoken out against this mission and been overridden by Elizabeth and most of the Science department. Zelenka had even raised his voice in support of this expedition, a rarity for the Czech scientist, who usually contented himself with muttering under his breath.
Maybe he had been trying to fill the hole left by McKay, who had been curiously quiet about the subject.
Although maybe it wasn't so curious. Anybody who really knew Sheppard knew the way he felt about the Genii these days. Kolya might be dead and gone, but the nightmares lingered.
"Wait," McKay said, stopping in his tracks. The party paused and turned to look at the absorbed scientist studying his handheld device. "I'm detecting a power source." He pressed the screen a few times, then lifted his hand and gestured to the west. "That way."
"Could it be the ZedPM you mentioned?"
Rodney stumbled over a small branch but managed to right himself without lifting his eyes from the screen. "It's possible," he said absently. He pressed the screen again. "There's definitely some shielding here, and that's blocking the signal."
The young woman who had asked the question nodded, a smile breaking out on her face. "This is so exciting," she breathed, and McKay spared her a quick, frowning glance. After three years in close contact with the man Sheppard could read Rodney like a book, and he totally agreed with the quizzical look. The young woman hardly seemed to fit in with the three other sober scientists the Genii had sent along on this mission. She looked to be barely out of her teens, her skin pale, her shoulder length hair curling closely around her heart shaped face.
"I think we've found the place," John said, squinting through the trees. Ahead of them loomed the pale gleam of metal walls, overgrown with ferns and creepers.
"Ruins," McKay said with satisfaction, nodding as if he'd known it all along. "That explains the shielding. Well, Colonel. It looks like we might have a chance of finding ourselves a ZedPM after all."
The actual finding took a little longer than that breezy pronouncement, but by sundown Rodney had tracked the signal to an underground locker, where a dusty ZedPM sat in all its glory. Once McKay could be convinced to stop hugging it like his firstborn child, Sheppard made the decision to make camp for the night and search the ruins one more time in the morning before beginning the trek back to the stargate.
"So, what do you call these?" Lilya asked, licking her lips.
"MRE's," Rodney told her, tucking into his own beef stew. "Good, aren't they?"
John exchanged a glance with Ronon who was shoveling down a whole days rations in the one sitting. He would never understand McKay's devotion to field rations, although he did admit they had improved slightly from his first taste of them many years ago. Back then the Meals: Ready to Eat were more often known as Meals: Rejected by the Enemy.
"Lilya," Sheppard said, as genially as he could manage. "You don't seem like the typical Genii scientist. At least none I've ever met. How did you get involved in this mission?"
"Lilya is a leading light amongst our next generation of scientists," Yegor interjected before the young woman could answer.
Sheppard stared at him, not bothering to hide his dislike. Dr Yegor was more like the Genii he had come to hate and mistrust. Middle aged and stocky, his thinning red hair brushed ruthlessly back from his face, his uniform hanging off his narrow shoulders. The other two Genii kept their heads down, concentrating on their meals.
"I guess the rate you were irradiating the last bunch, you're going to need all the new ones you can get," Sheppard said snidely.
Yegor's thin face reddened angrily, but he did not respond.
"Colonel," Teyla said quietly.
Sheppard shrugged, accepting the gentle reproach in her voice. Elizabeth knew he sucked as a diplomat, and she also knew he had good reason to mistrust anyone that wore the uniform the four Genii were wearing. She was just going to have to live with it if he mortally insulted one of them now.
Beside, they had what they came for.
"Actually," Lilya was saying quietly to McKay. "I was very surprised to be asked on this mission. Although I am quite highly thought of in my field, my, er, family is out of favor politically at the moment." She shot Sheppard an apologetic glance. "My mother was related to Commander Kolya," she admitted, not endearing herself to him at all.
"Such things are not important in the current state of peril, Lilya," Yegor said sharply, and the young woman looked faintly surprised, but bowed her head in acquiescence.
"There's nothing worse than mixing politics and science," McKay said breezily, obviously missing the undercurrents as he usually did. Sheppard shook his head in fond exasperation. Honestly, he often thought that if Rodney couldn't eat something or power Atlantis with it, he wouldn't even notice it existed.
"McKay," Ronon said in his deep voice. "Is your backpack supposed to be beeping?"
Rodney frowned and reached for his black pack, pulling out his handheld scanner and frowning at it. "I don't believe it," he breathed. "I'm picking up another energy signature."
Sheppard pushed himself to his feet, surveying the dark ruins around them suspiciously. "Where from?"
Rodney pointed excitedly. "Could we be lucky enough to find another ZedPM?'" he said hopefully.
"It doesn't make sense," Teyla said, echoing John's thoughts. "Why are you only just picking it up now? We have been here for hours."
"I don't know," Rodney said irritably, in his best I-don't-want-to-hear-about-it voice. "Maybe we triggered something when we were wandering around earlier."
"Like a booby-trap?" Ronon said, hand on his own holstered weapon.
"Not necessarily," Rodney said. "Why do you always have to look on the worst side?"
Ronon just looked at him for a long moment and McKay quirked his mouth and shrugged. "Never mind."
"You sure it's not Wraith?" Sheppard asked, even though he knew he was probably going to get way more of an answer than he wanted.
"It's Ancient technology," Rodney snapped. "Or do I need to explain the difference to you again?"
"Please don't," Sheppard said dryly.
"Our scout only reported a single energy signature," Yegor said, staring into the darkened ruins. "And he also surmised it was Ancient. Which was why we contacted your people in the first place." He shot a look of barely veiled hostility his way and Sheppard returned it measure for measure. Yegor's look said he wished they hadn't bothered and Sheppard hoped his look told Yegor and every Genii ever what they could do with that hope. Besides, it wasn't as if the Genii were doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Elizabeth had promised to pay a high price if the joint effort resulted in a power source for the city.
Didn't mean Sheppard had to like it though.
"I don't like it," he said. "We should wait until it's light to investigate."
"What if the signal fades again?" Rodney protested. "It's not far away, maybe only a hundred meters." He trained his best pleading glance on him and John turned it over in his mind as he studied each of the party members in turn. Teyla and Ronon, standing at the ready. Yegor and his two quiet friends, staring at him expressionlessly. Lilya, looking young and a little sleepy in her ill fitting uniform. And finally Rodney, who might be great at getting them all out of trouble, but also had a world class track record of getting them into it in the first place.
"Fine," Sheppard bit out. "I'll take point with McKay. Ronon, you and Teyla have our six. Stay close, watch where you put your feet, and for god's sake don't touch anything until McKay gives the okay."
The device turned out to be typical Ancient technology. That is, it was solid and square and completely mysterious.
"Rodney," Sheppard warned as the scientist peered down at the dull crystals slotted in its surface.
"Don't worry, Colonel," Rodney assured him. "The energy signature has already faded. The device is completely shut down." He frowned and looked around the dank little room. "This just doesn't make sense," he muttered.
"It's an Ancient device all right. But it doesn't look like it belongs here. It almost looks like it's been moved in here."
Sheppard tightened his grip on his gun, noting that Teyla and Ronon were already flanking the Genii scientists, their weapons at the ready.
"Moved here, huh?" Sheppard said suspiciously. "Like a trap?"
"Yeah, but set by who?" Rodney crouched and flipped open a panel, scanning the interior carefully.
"I really wish you wouldn't play with the mysterious device," John said in exasperation.
"Believe me, Colonel," Rodney said, meeting his eyes over the rim of the machine. "I'm not about to turn this thing on. Even if I had the first clue what it was."
And Sheppard did believe him, the sting of Carson's death was still too recent for them all. One simple mistake, one flip of a switch, and people, good people were dead.
"Are you sure the energy was coming from this device at all?" Lilya ventured, stepping closer.
"Pretty sure," Rodney said, straightening with one hand on the console and the other hand to his back. "Although I still don't..."
John Sheppard would go over the next few moments in his head a hundred times in the days that followed. Rodney's puzzled face, the beams of light from their flashlights playing around the eerie ruins. Lilya, leaning forward and resting one small hand on the paneled surface of the device.
And then the blast of electric blue energy that sizzled up from the Ancient machine, its power throwing them back on the ground, its glare blinding them for long moments as Rodney and the Genii girl seemed wrapped in the raw, crackling power.
And then the blessed silence as the light died as quickly as it had been born, and all that was left was the ragged sighs of their breath as they struggled to process what had happened.
"McKay!" Sheppard yelled, scrambling over the filthy floor to his team member's side. Rodney was sprawled in the moss and dirt, hands flung out to his side, clothes smoking gently. Teyla was beside him, her hands running over McKay's skin as John caught at the front of his jacket and shook him. "Rodney! Are you okay?"
Dimly he was aware of the Genii scrambling on the other side of the machine. Of anxious tones and hushed voices. Ronon crouched at Rodney's head, his stoic face worried but his eyes still scanning the room, the others, the entrance. Always on the alert.
"Colonel," Teyla said, her voice rough. Her hand was pressed to Rodney's throat, her skin pale under the smudges of grime. She shook her head, her eyes huge.
"No," Sheppard ground out, reading the devastated grief in her eyes. He pushed her hand roughly aside and tilted Rodney's head back, sealing his mouth over his friend's and pinching his nose shut. He blew two short breaths and felt Rodney's chest rise. Desperately he released Rodney's nostrils and glanced at his chest, listening for the sound of breathing. "Come on," he muttered, repeating the process, ignoring the chill that seemed to be creeping over Rodney's flesh.
"Dammit, Rodney! Come on!" he yelled.
"Nothing," Teyla said thickly, her fingers on Rodney's pulse, his slack hand cradled in hers.
"He's dead," Ronon said quietly.
"He can't be," Sheppard said harshly. He caught at Rodney's jacket again, pulling the slack body up and shaking it. "Goddammit, McKay!"
Big hands caught at his, squeezed, pulled them loose from the clutch of fabric. "John," Ronon said. "Let him go. He's gone."
He can't be, John thought again, running the words like a litany in his mind. Not just like that, a flash of light, falling into the dirt. Not Rodney who routinely pulled off miracles and dragged himself and others back from the brink of death, time after time. Even now, falling back onto his heels as he still crouched by the lifeless body, even now John's eyes were drawn to Rodney's face, that mobile mouth slack, those expressive blue eyes half open, expecting it to spring back to mobility and life. He watched as Ronon's big hand swept over Rodney's face, closing those eyes forever.
And it started sinking in.
Teyla had tears on her face as she caught at Rodney's hands and laid them gently over his chest. "How did this happen?" she whispered.
"Good question," John said, as his horror and shock solidified within him and he rose to his feet. Teyla stayed kneeling protectively at Rodney's side, but Ronon shadowed John as he skirted the smoking device and drew his gun on the Genii scientists. They were crouched around Lilya, one of them had removed his coat and laid it around her tenderly. John dimly registered that they were showing her more concern in death than they had in life.
"What did you do?" Sheppard said, pointing his weapon at Yegor. The scientist rose warily to his feet, hands hanging by his side, his smudged skin pale.
"Colonel?" he said warily.
"Rodney said it was a trap, and two minutes later he's dead?" John tucked the stock of his P-90 closer to his body as he kept the weapon trained on the hated Genii. "You led us here," he ground out. "You led my team member to his death."
"In case you haven't noticed, my team has also suffered," Yegor said evenly. "Lilya is gravely injured. We must get her back to the stargate and take her home."
John blinked and focused on the girl laying on the ground between two of her countrymen. "She's alive?"
"For the moment," Yegor said pointedly. "But she might not stay that way if we linger here arguing about whose fault this was."
"Colonel," Teyla said quietly. "They did as they promised, they led us to the power source. Surely no one could have foreseen such a terrible accident?"
This was not what Sheppard wanted to hear. This was not the time for the sweet voice of reason. His every instinct was to open fire on these smug Genii bastards and keep shooting until he ran out of ammunition. Beside him Ronon was poised, fingers caressing his gun, his own angry grief palpable.
And behind him lay Rodney, still and silent. Stillness and silence did not suit Rodney - he was all movement and sound, a babble of words, an expressive frown or elated grin.
And on the ground a young woman lay, perhaps dying.
Why was she alive when Rodney wasn't?
Rage died, swamped by grief, and John let the barrel of the gun fall. Killing the Genii would not bring Rodney back. Letting that kid die wouldn't bring him back. There would be no last minute miracle this time, no Hail Mary.
Ronon holstered his own weapon and laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. "I'll get some branches. Make a couple of stretchers."
John let him go, feeling shock creep through him like icy tendrils, but unable to fight it. Behind him Teyla was murmuring a prayer to the Ancestors, and he dimly wondered if it would bring her comfort. It could only be for her own sake, Rodney had no time or patience for religion.
"Your friend could carry Lilya," Yegor said. "What point is there in wasting time making stretchers?"
He meant what point was there in bringing Rodney's body home, although even he must have thought better than to say it. There was a lot John could say to that.
I want to know what killed him. I would never abandon his body to the forest.
We don't leave our people behind.
But in the end he just didn't have the energy.
"Shut up," he said, and turned to help Ronon.
The two scientists bore Lilya's stretcher, while Yegor lit their way with his flashlight. Ronon and John carried Rodney's still form, led by Teyla's uncanny sense of direction. Around them the forest seemed even darker and more primeval, the lights catching on towering ferns and tangled roots. The trip that had taken only an hour earlier that day now took them three, stumbling through the inky darkness of the forest, burdened by the dead and the living.
John concentrated on the weight of the stretcher, the chafe of the rough branches against his hands, the even measure of his steps as he followed Teyla's guidance towards the gate. No one spoke. Their journey took on the aspects of a nightmare, as if the forest would never end, as if this crush of grief had buried them in its darkness, a curse that would see them wandering forever.
And then the trees ended and there was the smooth swathe of meadow and the looming darkness of the stargate, limned by the gleam of a pair of tiny moons.
Suddenly Teyla froze in place, lifted her head, caught her breath. "Wraith," she declared, her voice husky with tears. "I sense Wraith nearby."
"What does she mean?" one of the Genii said in frightened tones.
"Just what she says," John said, laying down the stretcher. "Ronon?"
The big man was already ahead of him, bending effortlessly over McKay's body and lifting him to his shoulder in a fireman's hold. "Go," he urged, and they ran for the DHD, even as they heard the whine of ships in the distance.
"Darts!" Teyla panted.
"Help us!" Yegor called. The two scientists had also dropped their burden, but they didn't stay to help their injured team mate. Instead they were running towards the gate.
"Dammit," John cursed as he saw Yegor struggling to lift the young woman by himself. "Dial Atlantis!" he called out to Teyla, heading back towards the stricken pair. He skidded to his knees and lifted the girl's light weight into his arms. "Run!" he advised the Genii, just as a dart swooped out from over the forest, its beam skimming the ground. Ronon dropped Rodney and fired, hitting its underbelly. It veered away as the gate roared to life.
"Don't wait for me!" John ordered, as another dart swept forward. Ronon ran to help the Genii, but the two who had abandoned their comrade were swept up and Ronon threw himself away from the beam, rolling to his back and firing again. Yegor flung himself to the ground and rolled, cracking his head on a stone. The beam continued its course, sweeping up Rodney's body before turning to make another pass.
"Goddammit go!" Sheppard roared, as Ronon and Teyla caught Yegor under his arms and dragged him towards the gate. They disappeared and John threw himself forward the last few feet, diving into the rippling blue and letting it carry him away.
"Medical team to the Gate Room!" Elizabeth was calling as Sheppard staggered through the event horizon and fell to his knees. Hands grabbed for the girl on his shoulder and lifted her away, others helped him to his feet.
Colonel!" Elizabeth exclaimed, hurrying down the steps towards them. "What happened?" Her eyes swept the group, Ronon and Teyla laying Yegor down on the Gate Room floor. Lilya, her head lolling, being laid next to him. "Where's Dr McKay?" she demanded.
Sheppard looked at his remaining team mates, then met Elizabeth's worried gaze. "McKay's dead." he said flatly.
A medical team rushed into the room and bent over the stricken Genii as Elizabeth raised a hand to her mouth in shock.
"Oh my god," she whispered. "What happened?"
Sheppard shook his head, the shock of the last hours catching up to him, overwhelming him. He raised a hand to his forehead, wiping at the damp sweat on his brow. "I'm not sure," he admitted, and Elizabeth blinked and nodded her head.
"The briefing can wait," she said briskly, her voice only shaking a little. "Get yourselves to the infirmary and get checked over." She stepped closer and laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, John."
The infirmary just wasn't the same without Carson here, and other than the mandatory check-ups after each mission, Sheppard tended to avoid the place. Sometimes the halls of Atlantis seemed haunted by the ghosts of the Ancients, but this place was full of the memory of Carson. His genial smile and soft burring accent seemed to echo through the sterile rooms and cubicles.
Everyone missed him, but it had hit Rodney hardest of all. None of them had so many friends that they could afford to lose one. Especially one so close.
Would Rodney's ghost haunt the halls of this city now?
John sat on the edge of a examination table, obediently pressing the swab onto the crook of his elbow where his blood sample had just been extracted. Teyla sat opposite him, Ronon was leaning against the wall, face as expressionless as ever. Only his big hands, clenching and unclenching told his story.
"It all happened so quickly," Teyla said softly to Elizabeth. "Somehow the device activated and Rodney... Rodney was gone. Colonel Sheppard tried to revive him."
John closed his eyes as memories of those desperate minutes threatened to swamp him.
"But he was beyond our help." Teyla shook her head sadly. "I do not believe he suffered."
He didn't have time to be afraid, John thought. And fear was always Rodney's deadliest enemy. It came from being too damn smart, having too much imagination. If there was a worst case scenario, then Rodney's agile mind could come up with it while others were still processing the immediate danger.
"He never knew what hit him," Sheppard said dully.
"Dr Weir?" Dr Keller said tentatively. "The Genii girl is waking up."
From behind the curtain an irritated voice rang out. "What happened? When did we get back to Atlantis? And what the hell is wrong with my voice?"
Suddenly Sheppard couldn't stand it. He couldn't bear to listen to this Genii, this stranger in their midst. The deepest darkest part of him was still raging at the unfairness of it, that she should be the one who survived while Rodney died. That was not the way it was supposed to happen. Your friends weren't supposed to drop dead in front of you, blow themselves up heroically, get infected by some weird alien chemical and go nuts on you.
He jumped down off the table and reached for his jacket and gear as the curtain around the cubicle was drawn back.
"Please, miss," Dr Keller was saying as Sheppard slipped his ear piece back on. "You shouldn't be out of bed."
"Sheppard!" an imperious voice demanded. "Would you mind telling Dr Blondie here to get out of my face? And where's my ZedPM? Please tell me you didn't lose my ZedPM?"
Dr Blondie was saying something, Elizabeth had stepped forward, but John was frozen in his tracks.
"And would someone mind telling me what happened to my voice?"
Sheppard swung around and stared hard at the young Genii woman standing by the hospital bed. She was quiet at last, staring down at her hands, feeling at the sleeves and the small insignia sown to one cuff. "What the hell am I wearing?"
"Rodney?" Sheppard said, and everyone in the infirmary stopped to stare at him. "Rodney is that you?"
Irritated brown eyes met his. "Well of course it's me," he snapped. "Who were you expecting, Albert Einstein?"
"Oh my god," Elizabeth said again.
"Rodney?" Teyla breathed.
Now the brown eyes grew nervous. "Okay, guys," he said. "You're scaring me here." He pressed a hand to his chest. "What's wrong with me and oh my god what are these? Are these breasts? Do I have breasts?"
Ronon stepped forward and neatly caught McKay as his legs crumpled beneath him.
"Oh my god, I'm swooning," Rodney moaned.
"Dr McKay?" the doctor said, stepping forward and grasping his wrist as Ronon laid him back on the bed. "Can you tell me your full name?"
"What?" Rodney said dazedly. "What happened? What did you do?"
"Your full name, please?" the doctor demanded.
"Dr Rodney McKay," Rodney snapped back.
"Your full name," Sheppard said from the foot of the bed, shock and elation pouring through him. Because damned if that wasn't Rodney's every tone, even if the voice was not his. And that was Rodney's irritated expression crossing the smooth, unfamiliar brow. "The one your sister used when she was here."
Rodney's mouth turned down and now John was the one whose legs felt weak. Because that was Rodney looking at him from someone else's face, and he wasn't the only one who saw it, Elizabeth was staring wide eyed and Teyla had grabbed Ronon by the arm and was squeezing hard, a smile on her smudged face.
"Meredith," Rodney admitted reluctantly. "Meredith Rodney McKay. Multiple PHD holder and super-genius."
"Yeah," John said automatically. "You and Wile E. Coyote."
"Hardly," Rodney shot back. "I eat Road Runners for breakfast."
"I do not understand any of this," Teyla said tearfully. "But welcome back, Rodney!"
Rodney flicked her a nervous glance. "I was gone?"
"What's the last thing you remember?" the doctor said, taking charge again.
Rodney was again looking down at his chest and she had to ask the question twice before he looked up at her, blinking dazedly.
"Huh? Oh, MX3-486," he said, focusing once more. "That device. The damn thing was dead, I swear it was. And then wham! I suffered a brief moment of existential shock, and then nothing until I woke up here."
"Existential shock?" Elizabeth asked.
"Yeah. Just for a second it was like I was looking at myself, you know?" Rodney raised a brow in realization and shook his head. "Except it wasn't existential, was it?" he said slowly. "I really was looking at myself, from someone else's body."
"Lilya," John confirmed. "The young Genii girl."
"Oh, was that her name? I'm in her body? Sounds vaguely kinky. So she's in my body, right?" He looked around the infirmary curiously. "So where is she? I hope someone warned her about my allergies. And how weird is it that I'm just taking this in stride? I mean, it's not like I haven't shared my body with a woman before - consciousness wise, I mean."
Sheppard glanced at Elizabeth and his team and saw that they were all looking squarely at him. Great. He was going to be the one to bear the bad news.
"Wait a minute," Rodney said, breaking off his babble with a nervous laugh. "I'm not sure I like that look. She is here, isn't she?"
Sheppard shook his head. "I'm sorry, Rodney. She didn't make it. Your body didn't make it."
"What?" Rodney said incredulously. "What do you mean, didn't make it? Where the hell is my body, dammit!"
"Your body died, Rodney," Teyla said quietly. "Lilya must have died with it."
"Oh my god." Rodney looked away for a moment as he absorbed this. "Oh my god. But you brought it back, right? You have it in stasis or something, right?"
"Sorry, McKay," Ronon said gruffly. "We were bringing your body home, but I lost it when the Wraith attacked."
"You lost it?" Rodney squeaked incredulously. "Wait, there were Wraith? When were there Wraith?"
"They attacked as we got to the gate," Sheppard confirmed. "They culled two of the Genii and your body. Sorry, Rodney."
"Oh my god," Rodney said weakly. "This is not happening. Why would anyone even have a machine to swap bodies? What possible use could it be?"
"I could think of a few military uses," Sheppard began, but suddenly something in his head fell into place. "Doc?" he asked Dr Keller suddenly. "How's the other Genii, Yegor?"
Sheppard tapped his commlink. "I need a security team to the infirmary."
"Colonel?" Elizabeth asked. "What are you thinking?"
"That maybe McKay was right," Sheppard said slowly. "Maybe it was a trap after all."
"Welcome back, Yegor," Sheppard said coolly as the middle aged man stirred to wakefulness. The doctor stepped back and laid aside the syringe she'd used to inject a stimulant into his arm. "How's the head?"
Yegor raised a hand to the dressing on his forehead. "Where am I?"
"Original," Sheppard said dryly. "You're in Atlantis, safe and sound."
The doctor helped prop him in a sitting position on the bed and Yegor's eyes darted around the room, taking in Dr Weir standing at his right with her arms folded, and Ronon and Teyla on his left, silently studying him.
"Where are Avery and Kirril?"
"Your two buddies? Culled by the Wraith," Sheppard said shortly, ignoring Elizabeth's frown at his tone. "Along with Dr McKay's body."
Yegor's eyes widened in panic. "And Lilya?"
"Oh, we'll get to her," Sheppard said. He pulled a small metallic object from his pocket and tossed it onto Yegor's lap. "What's that?"
Yegor stared at the small rectangular device, sweat appearing on his brow.
"We found it in your jacket pocket," Sheppard said helpfully.
"I'll help you shall I? My expert tells me its Ancient. In fact he says he's seen something similar. It's a remote activation switch. Ring any bells, Yegor?"
"I found it in the ruins," Yegor blurted out. "I must have put it in my pocket." He met their eyes defiantly, his fingers clenched in the covers at his chest.
Sheppard stared at him expressionlessly for long moments. "And that's the story you want to go with, is it?" he finally asked.
"It's the truth," Yegor blustered. "And I must protest this shabby treatment. I demand that Lilya and I are returned to our homeworld immediately!"
"I don't think you're in a position to demand anything, Dr Yegor," Elizabeth said coolly.
"We helped you!" Yegor said shrilly. "You wanted an Ancient power source and we helped you find it! And this is how we're treated?"
"So far, considering what you've done, you've been treated pretty well," Sheppard told him grimly.
Yegor sank back against his pillows. "I did nothing," he whispered.
"I'm trying to imagine how long you must have been planning it," Sheppard mused. "Finding that Ancient device, figuring out what it did. Then setting up that trap with a ZPM as bait. And we fell for it, didn't we? Hook, line and sinker."
"Colonel, what are you saying?" Elizabeth frowned.
"I'm saying our buddy Yegor here waited until we were all happy and mellow from finding the ZPM, and then he pressed that switch on his nifty little remote. Powered up that device just long enough for us to track it down, then shut it off again so that Rodney wouldn't think it was dangerous."
"This is all nonsense," Yegor muttered, but sweat was running down his broad forehead.
"Then it was just a simple matter of waiting until Rodney and Lilya were touching it at the same time. Then you activated it again. I'd like to know how you knew it would kill Rodney's body and leave Lilya's alive, but I'm sure you'll be eager enough to tell me. Eventually," he bit out.
"Dr Yegor, is this true?" Elizabeth demanded.
Yegor turned his head away.
"You know, it's that poor kid Lilya I feel sorry for," Sheppard said bitterly. "I remember how you jumped in to shut her up when she started talking about how surprised she was to be asked on this mission."
"She was a sacrifice," Teyla said in horrified tones. "One of your own. Little more than a child!"
"But why?" Elizabeth asked in bewilderment. "What did you hope to..." She broke off as the facts sunk in, as they had sunk into John earlier when he'd finally put all the pieces together. "Dr McKay," she said numbly.
"And it almost worked too," Sheppard said. "We would have brought Rodney's body home and let you carry Lilya back to your world. You would have had Rodney's mind as your prisoner, and we wouldn't even have known he was missing."
"Thus preserving the Genii alliance with Atlantis," Elizabeth finished. "It's an insane plan."
"Not when you remember where it comes from," Ronon rumbled. "These are the people that fed Sheppard to a Wraith."
"That was the traitor, Kolya!" Yegor snapped. "We are not traitors, we are patriots. I was there the first time Dr McKay visited our laboratory! The breadth of his knowledge was staggering! My people need such knowledge to survive!"
"But we've shared knowledge with you, through our alliance," Elizabeth said, looking shaken that Sheppard's suspicions had been correct.
"Crumbs from your table," Yegor said bitterly. "We needed more."
"So you decided to steal it," Rodney's new voice rung out from behind the cubicle curtain. Sheppard looked up as Rodney swept the curtain aside angrily. His face was frozen, his eyes burning. "You killed one of your own people and stole my life, you son of a bitch! Look what you did to me!"
He lunged but Ronon was ready for him, catching him around his narrow waist and grasping his flailing fist with one strong hand.
"McKay," he rumbled. "He's not worth it."
"Security." Sheppard nodded at his team who stepped forward, their faces grim.
"Uh," Dr Keller said uncertainly. "He does have a rather severe head injury."
Sheppard pinned her with his gaze. "Will he die if I lock him in the brig?"
Dr Keller glanced at her patient. "Probably not," she admitted.
"Then lock him up," he ordered the detail, who grabbed the Genii scientist under each arm and 'helped' him from the bed.
Rodney was limp in Ronon's hold, tumbled brown curls obscuring his face. "I am so screwed," he was muttering. Sheppard nodded at the big man, who carefully helped Rodney back into his cubicle and onto his bed.
"My life is over," Rodney continued miserably. "That's it, finished. Done. Everything I've worked for... Gone."
"I think maybe a sedative," Dr Keller said briskly and nodded to her nurse.
"Rodney," Elizabeth said, touching his hand comfortingly. "Try to relax and rest, okay? We'll get this figured out, I promise."
"Figured out?" Rodney repeated, his tone bordering on the hysterical. "What's to figure out? My body's dead and I'm stuck in this one." His eyes widened even further. "Oh god! What if I'm not a genius any more? Shut up! Let me think!"
He scrunched his eyes shut, frowning hard. Sheppard glanced at Elizabeth, seeing the worried concern on her face.
"Rodney?" he began.
"I think it's okay," Rodney said, eyes opening wide. "But what if I'm so stupid now I can't tell? And, oh, god, what if this is temporary? What if I snap back into my other body? I could die!
"You're not going to die," Sheppard told him firmly, meeting panicked eyes with the ease of long practice. They were now a soft brown instead of bright blue, but they still gazed at him worriedly, wanting to be reassured. "The Genii wanted your mind, Rodney, they would have made sure that you were still a genius and that this thing was permanent before they did it."
"Oh, like I trust the technical knowledge of the Genii," Rodney snapped. "The people who thought nuclear radiation was harmless. Oh god, what if I'm just ordinary?"
The nurse handed the doctor a syringe and she carefully pushed his sleeve up and plunged the needle home.
"Oh god," Rodney crooned, eyes half closed as the sedative took effect. "I shouldn't have been showing off to the Genii. My mother always told me I was too smart for own good. Should... have... listened.. to..."
Sheppard found himself breathing a sigh of relief as Rodney's eyes closed and he trailed into sleep.
"Is he right?" Ronon asked bluntly. "Is he stuck like this?"
Sheppard shrugged. "No idea," he admitted.
But... an hour ago he had thought Rodney dead. And now his friend was alive and well, or if not well, then not actually unwell.
"But he's alive," Teyla said, echoing John's thoughts.
"And alive beats dead any day of the week," Sheppard agreed. "The rest we'll figure out."
Sheppard ignored doctor's orders, and after a quick shower and shave he tracked Elizabeth down in her office.
"Colonel," she greeted, putting aside her computer. "Shouldn't you be resting?"
"I think we need to discuss what we're going to do about the Genii."
"I've already contacted their home-world and arranged a meeting with Laden. It's scheduled for tomorrow morning."
"A meeting?" Sheppard said scathingly. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but a meeting just isn't going to cut it this time. They've gone too far for diplomacy."
"We can't assume that this was authorized by Laden."
"I don't care if it was authorized or not! These people have been taking potshots at us for years. And all your treaties and diplomacy haven't put a stop to that."
"So what do you suggest? Declaring war on the Genii?"
"They tried to kidnap the head of our science department!" Sheppard shot back. "Seems to me that they're the ones who have declared war."
"Well it seems to me that we better get our facts straight before we go to war with yet another enemy in the Pegasus galaxy!" Elizabeth said firmly.
"And that's it? You're just going to play nice with Laden? Where you just in the infirmary with us? Did you see what they did to Rodney? They've destroyed his life! We need to do some destroying of our own!"
"Colonel!" Elizabeth snapped. "I'll put your tone down to what you've been through today. You're tired and you're stressed, and that is not the best time to make military decisions. Or indeed any decisions at all, which is why I arranged my meeting with Laden for tomorrow."
John resisted the urge to punch something, swinging around to face the wide glass windows. He had a sudden memory of himself actually putting a fist through one of those windows, and oddly the reminder cooled his temper somewhat. He didn't ever want to be that out of control again.
"I'm sorry," he apologized quietly. "And you're right, I am tired and stressed. I spent the better part of today thinking I'd lost another team mate. And now I don't even know what to feel about his condition, other than glad to have him back."
"I don't think he's going to be quite so sanguine about it for a while," Elizabeth said dryly, and her tone told Sheppard it was safe to turn back around and meet her wry gaze with one of his own. He shrugged another apology and she quirked a small smile at him.
"Have we called back all our teams from off-world?"
"Yes. And we've begun sending messages to all our allies that the Genii are no longer counted among their number. I've also ceased all aid, effective immediately, to the Genii home-world. Including the supplies of medicine Carson had arranged to treat those affected by radiation poisoning."
"He would have had something to say about that," Sheppard said somberly.
"Oh, I've no doubt he would have," Elizabeth agreed. They shared a moment's silence for a lost friend.
"I'm sorry again for going off at you," John said. "It sounds as if you have everything under control."
"John, the time may come for the military to step in. I hope it won't, but we can't rule it out. And then it'll be your turn to take over. But I need to know we've exhausted every diplomatic avenue before we start a war."
Sheppard nodded agreement, then Elizabeth added reluctantly. "There's something else we have to think of."
"What?" Sheppard frowned trying to think what he'd missed.
"We have to entertain the idea that this might not be what it seems. That might not be Rodney."
Sheppard shook his head. "No way. The man barely spoke a dozen words and I knew it was him."
"It sounds like him, I'll give you that. But you remember Phoebus, don't you? She sounded a lot like me when she piggy backed her way into my body."
He shifted uncomfortably. He'd hosted a consciousness himself for a while, and he was still kicking himself for ever agreeing to it. "That was different," he defended.
"Was it? The truth is we don't know what it was exactly, we just had a lot of guesses. We can't just accept this at face value. Rodney may be in there somewhere and Lilya might have access to his memories. Reacting the way she thinks he would react."
"That's a little far fetched," John said, grimacing, and Elizabeth gave him a wry look.
"The fact that you can say that with a straight face astounds me," she shot back. "How about this then? Lilya's a psychic, and she's reading our minds and saying what we would expect McKay to say."
"To what ends?"
"I don't know, how about a Genii spy running our Science department? Having unlimited access to our every system. Need I go on?"
Sheppard shook his head. "Okay, maybe not so far-fetched considering some of the stuff we've seen over the years," he admitted.
"And some of the experiences the SGC had back on Earth," Elizabeth added. "You've read some of their mission reports. Clones, body swapping, psychics, even mind control. We have to consider and discount every possibility before we can fully accept that the person sitting in the infirmary is indeed Rodney McKay."
"Fair enough. But I don't have any doubts. That's Rodney."
Elizabeth nodded. "As it happens I agree with you. But we have to follow protocol, and that means keeping McKay under guard until his identity can be proven."
"How exactly are we supposed to do that?" Sheppard considered some of her suspicions. Psychics?
"The SGC has protocols in place. Some of them will be similar to those you and I went through after our ordeal. I'll set them into motion, but in the meantime we go on as if it is already proven. If it is Rodney we don't want to put him through any more right now than he's already going through. And if it's an imposter, well, we don't want to alert her to our suspicions."
"This sucks," Sheppard said, slumping down into his seat.
"You look exhausted," Elizabeth said gently. "I'm sure it will all look better in the morning."
"D'you think McKay will have that attitude?"
"I doubt it. But, if he's not in the mood to count his blessings just yet, well, we can do it for him. I'm just glad I don't have to write a eulogy for yet another friend."
John nodded soberly.
"Hey, buddy, how's it going?"
Rodney was sitting propped up in bed, his hair pulled back, little damp tendrils curling around his forehead. He was wearing a hospital gown and light blue robe. His mouth was turned down and he shrugged glumly.
"I just had a shower."
"It was kind of awkward."
"I can imagine."
"Can you?" Rodney challenged. "I had to keep my eyes closed the whole time."
"Uh huh." John perched on the edge of the bed and reached for the grapes on the bedside table. "How long do you think you can keep that up for?"
"As long as it takes," Rodney said stubbornly. "You have no idea what's it's like to see a stranger when you look in the mirror. And seriously, have you seen how young this kid is?" He gestured sweepingly down the length of his body. "I felt like a dirty old man just bathing."
"As long as what takes?" John said suspiciously, popping another couple of grapes in his mouth.
"I have a plan," Rodney declared.
John raised his brows. "Great! Tell me your plan."
"Okay, bear with me," Rodney said, leaning forward earnestly. "Because this might sound crazy at first. We know alternate universes exist, right? The SGC has recorded numerous incidences of SG team members traveling to, or having contact with themselves from these other universes."
"Uh huh," John drawled, already having a bad feeling about this.
"In fact," Rodney rushed on. "We've met an alternate universe version of me, the insufferable Rod."
"How could I forget," John murmured.
"Anyway, here's my plan. We travel to one of these alternate universes. Appropriate their Rodney McKay, bring him back here, swap bodies and send him back to his own universe as a girl!"
John slowly chewed another grape, squinting at the febrile glitter in Rodney's eyes as he gazed at him expectantly.
"What?" McKay demanded.
"And you were worried it was going to sound crazy?" Sheppard leaned forward and slapped Rodney smartly on the side of his head.
"Ow!" Rodney said indignantly. "What was that for?"
"You're kidding, right? Rodney, we're not kidnapping anyone. Anyway do you really want to put another person through what you're going through now? Especially yourself?"
"Well there wouldn't really be a point if it was anyone but me," Rodney snapped sarcastically. "Okay, how about this? What if we look for an evil-Rodney? I mean, come on, I am a super genius. I'm bound to have gotten sick of the lot of you in some universe and taken over with no more than the superior power of my mind. And don't think I haven't thought about it!"
"I'm thinking we ended up with evil-Rodney in this universe," Sheppard said sarcastically. "For the last time, McKay, no. We are not kidnapping anybody, and we're not going anywhere near that Ancient device again. Or have you forgotten that in the last exchange one of you died?"
"How could I forget?" Rodney demanded. "When my poor body is probably floating in space somewhere after being shoved out of a Wraith garbage disposal." He hunched his shoulders. "I had nightmares about it last night, just floating."
Sheppard felt a pang of sympathy, and then one of guilt as he realized he'd eaten all of Rodney's grapes. He tossed the denuded stem back on the stainless steel bedside table.
"You can't dwell on that stuff," he advised gruffly. "You've got to look to the future."
"Oh now you sound like Dr Blondie," Rodney sniped. "Telling me I should be looking for the positive."
"You know you really ought to be nicer to your doctor. She has big needles and she's not afraid to use them."
Rodney just shrugged again, looking depressed.
"And it's not her fault she's not Carson," John said gently.
Rodney's shoulders twitched. "I dreamt about him last night as well," he revealed. "Can't help wondering what he'd think about... all this."
John considered it for a moment, then smiled. "I don't know," he said with a small chuckle. "But I'm pretty sure he would have been patting you on the head and calling you a sweet little lass."
Rodney huffed a laugh, giving Sheppard a glimpse of a tiny dimple in his right cheek. "He really would have. He was such a flirt."
"You are you know," John teased, trying to keep the mood light. "A sweet little lass."
"Pervert," Rodney accused without heat. "I'm jailbait is what I am."
"Yeah, but you're also kinda cute."
"That's not making me feel any better," Rodney said severely, then he tilted his head. "Really? Cute?"
"As a button," John told him, completely straight faced.
"Huh." Rodney fiddled with his bedclothes. "So, what did Igor have to say for himself?"
"Yegor," John corrected.
"I'm questioning him this afternoon. Elizabeth felt like I should, ah, cool down a little bit before the interrogation."
"Don't forget the thumbscrews," Rodney said bitterly.
"I'm taking Ronon. He's much more terrifying."
Rodney acknowledged that with a nod. "So," he said, voice determinedly casual. "What's with the guards?"
Sheppard followed his nod to the doorway, where two of his marines stood, surveying the goings on in the busy infirmary. He considered his next words carefully.
"It's just a standard precaution, Rodney."
McKay gazed at him, eyes narrow and suspicious. Sheppard took the opportunity to study him back, something he'd tried not to do so far. He wasn't sure, but he thought staring at a friend who'd swapped bodies with someone else was probably impolite. Rodney's new face was worth staring at anyway. Smooth, pale skin, little pointed chin, wide, brown eyes, long lashes sweeping his cheeks as Rodney studied him back.
"At least I'm not in the brig," Rodney said sarcastically. "They don't believe I'm me, do they?"
Sheppard wondered who 'they' were. Maybe it was just easier for McKay to say 'they' than 'you'. "Like I said," Sheppard said easily. "Just standard procedure. Elizabeth and I went through it after that whole possession thing."
Rodney's mouth turned down. "I think Caldwell probably had it easier," he said. "At least they knew he was him after the Goa'uld was removed."
"Exactly. And Elizabeth and I could be scanned, proving that those imprinted personalities had faded.. But you..."
"You only have my word for it," Rodney snorted. "Maybe that machine didn't swap our bodies. Maybe it just sucked my consciousness out and stuffed it in Lilya's brain along with hers. Maybe that's why my body died and hers didn't."
Sheppard stared at him, dumbfounded. That actually made a scary kind of sense.
"What?" Rodney glared at him. "Didn't you think of that one? I guarantee the SGC did." He hunched narrow shoulders. "My career is over. They will never let me near anything classified again."
"No," Sheppard denied, mind still racing. "The SGC has faced stuff like this before. They have measures in place. Anyway," he said, his mind catching up with his knee-jerk reaction. "If you had two consciousness's in your head the scans would have shown it. The Lantean machines have always picked that up before."
Rodney raised one brow. "Always? How weird is it that we have experienced possession enough times that it's almost become commonplace?"
"And like I said, the SGC has protocols in place," Sheppard reminded him. "Elizabeth said they are sending a member of the IOC to ask you some questions."
"Ooh, goody," Rodney said sourly. "An interrogation. How can my day get worse?"
Dr Keller walked up with a smile. "Colonel Sheppard," she greeted. "Visiting our patient?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. I had to ask."
"Rodney," John murmured warningly and Rodney closed his mouth and forced a sickly smile. Again that dimple flashed in and out.
"So, Dr... uh, Doctor," McKay said politely. "How am I? When can I get out of here?"
"I'd like to watch you for one more day, to be on the safe side."
Rodney's eyes widened. "Why? What have you found?"
"Nothing," Dr Keller said soothingly. "You're a perfectly healthy teenage girl."
"Which would be a welcome diagnosis if I wasn't a reasonably unhealthy thirty-eight year old man," Rodney retorted.
"Thanks, Doc," John said and smiled charmingly.
"All being well I'll release you tomorrow," the doctor promised. "And Rodney, remember. Focus on the positive."
"I swear if she says that one more time," Rodney muttered as she strolled away. "You notice how she keeps saying it, but doesn't actually tell me what any of the positives are?"
"Oh come on," Sheppard said reasonably. "I can think of a dozen off hand."
Rodney crossed his hands over his chest and frowned dourly. "Name three," he challenged.
Sheppard glanced away, trying to look thoughtful and hoping Rodney hadn't noticed him staring at the new curves his position accentuated.
"Well, you're obviously still yourself, genius-wise. Right?"
Rodney shrugged. "I never really doubted it," he declared. "And since that was something I already have, it doesn't count."
"Fine. How about... Oh, I know. Your bad back. And your hypoglycemia."
"That's one," McKay allowed grudgingly.
"They're both about my health, so they count as one."
"Okay, how about your allergies? You can drink orange juice now."
"Oh, because that was worth trading my testicles for," Rodney said sarcastically.
"Come on, it's not like you were using them," Sheppard teased and Rodney gave him his narrow eyed glare of death. The rosy cheeks and soft curls kind of ruined the image, but Sheppard wouldn't have told him that for the world.
"That's two," Rodney said shortly.
"Well, the last one's obvious. You're what? A teenager now? Eighteen or nineteen? You've dropped twenty years. You know what most people would give, to be eighteen again?"
"I hated being a teenager," Rodney snapped. "I was smarter than everyone around me but I had no power, no control. And women might find intelligence sexy, but teenage girls don't. I couldn't get laid to save my life." Rodney broke off and his eyes widened again, his face paling so rapidly that Sheppard grew alarmed. "Oh my god!"
"Rodney, are you okay?"
"Oh my god, I can't believe it took me this long to realize!" He turned stricken brown eyes in Sheppard's direction. "I'm never going to have sex again."
Relieved that McKay wasn't suffering a stroke, Sheppard sank back on the bed. "Oh you don't know that."
"Oh, I think I do," Rodney said waspishly. "I'm obviously never going to have sex as a man again, and since my only other option is sex with a man..." His mouth turned down in a grimace.
"Let's not go there," Sheppard said hurriedly. It was bad enough that he was noticing Rodney's dimples, and his warm brown eyes and his soft new curves. He really didn't want to think about Rodney's sex life right now. "Anyway, you could meet a nice gay woman," he tried, somewhat desperately. The idea took hold and he ran with it. "Think about, Rodney. Hot girl-on-girl sex."
Rodney blinked. "Huh."
"Come on," Sheppard coaxed. "Hot girl-on-girl sex has to be worth something, right?"
"Yeah," Rodney admitted reluctantly.
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed, slapping him on the shoulder consolingly as he stood up. "I've got those thumbscrews to pick up, I better get moving."
Rodney frowned. "Ow," he said pointedly, lifting a small hand to his shoulder. "Tone down the manly slaps, okay? I'm just a girl now, remember."
"I'm gonna tell Teyla you said that," John teased.
"Tell me you said what?" Teyla said from the doorway.
"Nothing," Rodney said hurriedly.
"Later, buddy," John waved from the door, rolled his eyes at Teyla and left.
The interrogation went pretty much as Sheppard thought it would. Dr Yegor denied everything, even his confession in the infirmary. He accused them of drugging him and demanded that he and his fellow Genii 'prisoner' be returned to their homeworld.
"Well, that was productive," Sheppard said dryly, nodding to the guard on duty as they left the holding cells behind them.
"I'm telling you, Sheppard," Ronon growled. "Leave me alone with him for five minutes." He cracked his knuckles threateningly.
"You think you can get a confession out of him?"
Ronon gave him a blank look. "Confession?"
Sheppard snorted. "Yeah, right. Believe me, I'd like a dark corner to kick the crap out of him as well. We'll just have to settle for locking him up until he dies of extreme old age."
"Doesn't seem enough somehow," Ronon said evenly. They reached a transporter and Sheppard touched a hand to the glowing panel on the wall. "How's McKay?"
John shrugged. "Pretty much how you'd expect. He's taking it pretty well, considering." They exited at the mess hall and picked up a tray each. "Have you been to see him yet?"
Ronon helped himself to two of everything. "Don't know what to say to him," he admitted.
"Yeah." Sheppard filled his tray and they took a seat. "Well, Teyla's with him now, and Elizabeth said she'd stop by later. I think Radek is going to see him tonight, to argue about the new ZPM." He separated his knife and fork and poked at his salad. "I guess everyone wants to keep him occupied. Try to stop him from thinking too much."
Ronon paused in his meal, his mouth full, his expression eloquent.
"I know," Sheppard admitted. "Stopping Rodney from thinking is like making water run uphill."
Ronon chewed thoughtfully for a while, then gulped down half a bottle of water. "I like him," he announced and John raised a quizzical brow. "I didn't ever dislike him," Ronon expanded. "He was just kind of there, you know?"
"He does tend to fill a space," John admitted. "And a silence. It's never quiet with McKay around."
"Yeah." Ronon finished his first plate and pushed it aside. Sheppard ate his own meal a little more slowly, waiting for the big man to gather his thoughts. Ronon didn't really say much, probably a product of spending seven years alone on the run from the Wraith. Or maybe he had always been the strong, silent type.
But when he did speak it was usually something worth listening to.
"He grew on me," Ronon finally said. "When you see past all the stuff on the surface... he's a good guy."
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed. "I guess we have to keep in mind that he's still the same guy. Just facing something..." He shook his head. "Honestly? I don't know how I'd be handling it."
Ronon raised a brow in agreement. Of all the dangers a man could expect to face in the Pegasus Galaxy, no one had mentioned body swapping. Or gender changing, for that matter.
"None of this was in the brochure," Sheppard muttered, and Ronon nodded again, even though he probably didn't get the reference.
Next morning Sheppard breezed into the infirmary, chatted with the doctor for a few minutes, and then headed for Rodney's cubicle.
"Rise and shine, McKay. The doc's springing you." He swept open the curtain and quickly dragged it back again, red staining his cheeks at the sight of Rodney's bare, narrow back. The new improved Rodney's back, which was slim and pale and tapering down to a sweet little khaki-covered ass, perched on the edge of a high exam table.
"Rodney!" Sheppard exclaimed. "I didn't need to see that! For god's sake put a shirt on."
"You put a shirt on," Rodney yelled back.
Sheppard glanced around the infirmary and various personnel looked back down at their work hurriedly.
"What?" he asked, exasperated.
"This shirt is too small. And have you ever actually put a bra on? Oh wait, who am I talking to? You probably have."
Sheppard bit back his temper. "Rodney," he said through gritted teeth. "Do you want me to get you a bigger shirt?"
"I want my shirt," Rodney said stubbornly. "I'm not wearing this shirt."
"Fine," Sheppard bit out. "I'll get your shirt, but for god's sake cover yourself up. I'm scarred for life here."
"You should see it from my point of view," Rodney said miserably, and Sheppard's irritation faded.
"Any particular shirt?"
"Anything that belongs to me."
"I'll be back in five."
It actually took about ten minutes to get to Rodney's room and rifle through his drawers until he found a shirt. He tossed aside shorts and pants, realizing with a pang that Rodney would probably never wear them again. John supposed he couldn't blame the guy for clinging to what he had left.
"Rodney?" he called, once he was back outside the cubicle, and a slim hand was thrust through the curtains. Sheppard waited a moment. "You decent yet?"
The curtain was dragged aside and Rodney stood in front of him, swamped by the t-shirt that hung past his thighs.
"Thanks," he said awkwardly. "Sorry I intimated you were a cross-dresser."
"That's okay," Sheppard forgave him. "I'm sorry I said I was scarred for life. I mean, I probably am..."
"Well maybe next time you'll knock," Rodney retorted.
John was speechless for a few seconds. "How do you knock on curtains?" he finally said, but Rodney was looking up at him, his face distracted.
"I never realized from the hospital bed, but I'm short," he said in dismay.
"And petite," John needled, through sheer force of habit more than anything else.
"You're not kidding," Rodney agreed fervently. "D'you see the size of these pants?" He lifted the bottom of the t-shirt, exposing the waist band of the science uniform pants, and an expanse of pale, flat belly.
"Jeez, Rodney," Sheppard hissed, batting at his hands. "Put it away."
Rodney dropped the hem of the shirt, looking confused. "What? We're in a hospital, these people have seen me naked."
"Well I haven't, and that's the way I want to keep it for the rest of my life, okay?"
"God," Rodney said in amazement. "I never realized you were such a prude."
"McKay I've know you for three years and I've never even seen you without your shirt. And believe me we're both happier men for it. But now suddenly you're an exhibitionist? What's up with that?"
"Huh," Rodney said, looking struck. "You're right. I'm a very modest person. I mean, one of the reasons I couldn't look Cadman in the eye for so long was the fact that she watched me peeing. Talk about emotional scarring!"
Sheppard frowned. "So what's changed?"
"I guess because this isn't my body," Rodney said thoughtfully.
"Well, right now it's the only one you've got," Sheppard reminded him.
Rodney glanced at him. "Rethinking my alternate universe idea?"
Rodney smirked and shifted from one foot to the other. Sheppard idly wondered where they'd found shoes small enough to fit his new feet.
"So," he said.
"So," Rodney agreed.
"The doc's cleared you for take-off."
Sheppard waited another beat. "Yet I notice you're not moving."
Rodney gave an awkward chuckle and scratched idly at his neck. "Yeah," he acknowledged, glancing at the infirmary door.
Understanding hit him and Sheppard took a step closer.
"Rodney, it's okay," he said quietly. "This is Atlantis, right? Weird things happen here everyday."
"Name one that's weirder than this?" Rodney challenged. "Everyone is going to be staring and pointing."
"I don't think they'll actually point," Sheppard murmured.
"I can't do it," Rodney decided. "I'll just stay in here until we find a cure for me."
"Rodney, you're not sick. Now we may figure something out further down the track to make your life easier..." Because a guy had to have some hope, right? "But you can't stay here forever. You got to get back in the cockpit, buddy. You've got to take your life back."
Rodney stared at him, looking so much like himself despite looking nothing like himself, that Sheppard totally lost his train of thought for a second.
"You're right," Rodney said slowly. "I've lost control of everything, and I've got to get it back."
"That's the spirit."
"Those Genii bastards are not going to win. If they think I'm going to crawl into some hole somewhere, they've got another think coming! They are not going to defeat Rodney McKay!"
"Well?" Rodney said, voice suddenly impatient. "What are you waiting for? Let's get the hell out of here."
"Right behind you, buddy," Sheppard agreed, letting his now, much shorter friend, sweep by. He gave a thumbs up to Keller and her team, and followed, the marine guards trailing them at a discrete distance.
"Where are we going?" Sheppard said, easily keeping pace with Rodney's quick stride. People in the hallways did indeed turn and stare as they rushed by, but Rodney grandly ignored them. Or maybe he really didn't see them, he was famous for his complete disregard for the rest of the world when he was focused on something.
"The science lab. I want to check on Zelenka."
"Security hasn't cleared you to go back to work yet," Sheppard reminded him.
"Don't worry, Colonel," Rodney said firmly. "I'm just poking my head around the door."
Poking his head around the door actually consisted of Rodney striding into the main science lab and standing with his hands on his hips until everyone stopped working and turned to look at him.
"That's right," he said in ringing tones. "Everything you've heard is true. I am now a girl. In fact I have been informed by a reliable source that I am now a cute girl. I suggest you get all the staring over with now, and get back to what I laughingly refer to as your jobs. Radek?"
"Hm?" Zelenka said, jumping at the sound of his name.
"Send me the data on the new ZedPM. I want to study it before I get back on active duty."
"Already done," Zelenka said.
"Excellent." Rodney made to turn, then lifted a finger and turned back to the assembled scientists. "Might I just add, for the newest members of our team. Welcome to the Pegasus Galaxy. Please feel free to look upon me as a cautionary tale. Touch the wrong thing here, and spontaneous change of gender might be the best you can hope for. Carry on."
He strode back out of the room but Sheppard lingered in the doorway for a few more moments to enjoy the aftermath.
"My god, he did turn into a girl."
"He's still a son of a bitch."
"...and kinda cute."
Exchanging a smirk with the two marine guards, Sheppard quickened his steps and caught up with McKay who was waiting for him by a transporter.
"McKay, that was brilliant!" he enthused, then he caught sight of Rodney's pale face and the outstretched hand against the wall holding him up. "McKay?"
"Okay, I'm ready to crawl into that hole," Rodney muttered through white lips.
Sheppard glanced around then caught narrow shoulders and pushed McKay into the transporter. He nodded at the guards before palming the lit wall. The doors swooshed closed.
"Peachy." Rodney panted. "Do you think they bought it?'
"Every word," Sheppard assured him. "You scared the pants off 'em. It was a hell of a show."
"Scientists are like tigers in the circus," Rodney said, some of his color coming back. "You have to show them who's boss right away, or believe me, they will go for the throat."
"It was a pretty brave thing to do."
"And I'm not naturally a brave person. I think I used up my quota for the year."
The door swooshed back open on the accommodation floor and Rodney breathed a sigh of relief.
"Home sweet home," he moaned.
Sheppard shook his head fondly. Rodney was plenty brave enough. He saw the scientist to his door and then waited until the guards caught up before going back about his duties for the day.
The IOC actually sent a team through they gate, including a shrink and a medical doctor. They also had a crate of Asgard technology that they set up in a spare lab in one of the disused wings. Sheppard and Elizabeth walked McKay down there a few hours after they arrived.
"This really sucks," Rodney said for the third time. "Isn't it bad enough that I don't even recognize my own face in the mirror? Now I have to prove I am who I say I am to a bunch of suits who don't even know me?"
"I'm assuming that's why they were chosen, Rodney. They will be completely impartial," Elizabeth placated.
"I like partial," Rodney said morosely. "I appreciate partial people on my side."
"Just look on it like any other test,' Sheppard advised. "You'll ace it."
"And I don't even have to study for it," Rodney joked weakly. They arrived at the door in the dimly lit wing and Rodney took a deep breath, fists clenched.
"Good luck," Elizabeth said.
"Break a leg," Sheppard added.
As military head of Atlantis, Sheppard was invited to sit in on the meeting with Elizabeth, Dr Keller, and the head of security. The IOC members droned on about brainwave patterns and Asgard technology. They produced graphs and 3D graphics that Sheppard would have found really cool if he weren't so anxious.
"The findings are conclusive," the severely dressed woman in charge finally said. "There is only one consciousness in the young woman's body."
"But you're not yet sure it's Dr McKay's?" Elizabeth asked.
"We're reasonably sure," the woman nodded. "The final tests are the independent questionnaires garnered by SGC security. Friends, family members, colleagues. All people from the subject's past. They were asked detailed questions about the subject, and questionnaires were then generated to test the subject. No one present knows the answers, which rules out psychic interference. If the answers are correct, and as we now know there is only one consciousness present..."
"Then we'll know it's McKay," Sheppard interrupted.
The woman looked smug. "Precisely."
Elizabeth wrapped up the meeting and saw the team to the stargate, while Sheppard had a few words with the doctor and the lieutenant.
"Questionnaires?" he said as Elizabeth returned to the now empty conference room. "McKay doesn't even remember the names of the people he works with."
"We have to assume the SGC know what they're doing," Elizabeth returned, although she didn't look very happy about it.
Sheppard had his own reservations.
"Hey, Rodney. How's it going?"
Rodney looked up from his screen, pushing his chair a little back from his desk.
"You could have knocked," he said waspishly. "Unless you want to be scarred for life again."
Sheppard sat down on the edge of the bed, sighing wearily. It had been a long day. "Sorry. The door just opened for me."
"I could have been getting dressed or anything," Rodney persisted, although it was clear his heart wasn't in it.
"Rough day?" Sheppard said quietly.
"Oh no, it was a peachy day," Rodney sneered. "Sitting down and answering questions about some of the most personal moments of my life. I have come to the conclusion that SGC security are all closet sadists. They asked the most humiliating questions known to man."
Sheppard thought about it. "Did you piss any of them off when you worked at the SGC?"
"More than likely. I'm pretty sure I pissed off everybody when I worked at the SGC." He frowned, looking puzzled. "It's a knack I have."
Sheppard was pretty sure it was a knack he'd cultivated, but he didn't push it. The man looked... beaten, slumped in his chair, hair hanging in limp tendrils around his face.
"You want to get out of here?" Sheppard offered, and Rodney looked up, surprised.
"Am I allowed?"
"The guards are just to follow you around, Rodney, not keep you in here."
"Oh." Rodney looked down at his computer screen. "I wasn't sure," he admitted.
Sheppard grimaced. "Sorry, I should have explained. You have free run of the place, except for the secure areas, like the control room, or the labs."
"I should have asked," Rodney shrugged. "Truth is, I'm not sure about facing people anyway."
"I guess I understand that," Sheppard conceded. "But you did okay yesterday. Your speech at the lab has already become the stuff of legends."
"Really?" Rodney looked flattered. "I suppose some fresh air would be welcome."
"I know just the place. Bring a sweater."
The transporter took them to the East Pier, but instead of heading down the windswept dock, Sheppard led the way up into one of the few towers located on the side. The areas were dusty and disused, equipment covered with cloths, banks of devices dark and silent.
"We think this was a training area," Rodney said absently as they traversed the corridors.
"For pilots, yeah, I know," Sheppard answered.
"Of course you'd know. Anything to do with flying."
"One day, when we can take the focus off defense, I'd love to explore here a bit more. I bet they had some pretty cool flight simulators."
A door swept open in front of him and they emerged onto a wide balcony, dotted with benches and awnings. Sheppard led the way to a set of comfortable seats that overlooked the moonlit sea, but was protected from the stiff evening breeze.
"Nice," Rodney admired, clutching his oversized sweater around his shoulders.
"Yeah. It's pretty quiet, and sometimes you need that, you know? I came here... after Carson."
"Yeah." Rodney gazed out at the restless ocean and Sheppard studied the unfamiliar curve of his profile. He remembered other times he'd stood with Rodney on the balconies of Atlantis, studying the weather, talking about missions. Even whale-watching. A dull pang echoed in his chest. It was the oddest feeling - to miss someone who was standing right next to you. To miss Rodney's bright blue eyes, his mobile mouth, that smug grin. The Rodney he remembered was gone, and he would never see him again.
There was grief then, for that Rodney. For Carson and Ford.
Rodney had his head bowed and his curls danced a little in the breeze. Sheppard rested a hand on his shoulder, and they sat for a long time, gazing out at their home.
The results came back from SGC security. Rodney had passed his tests and was given security clearance.
"Yay, I win at being me," he said sourly, but a few minutes later he was smiling and accepting congratulations from Teyla and Elizabeth and Radek. Sheppard slapped him on the back, then caught him and apologized when Rodney staggered forward under the modest tap.
Ronon was conspicuous by his absence, but no one said anything.
The next days went smoothly enough, once Rodney was cleared to go back to work. By unspoken agreement his friends kept a discreet eye on him, dropping casually into the science labs a few times a day. Sheppard invited him to eat with them, but Rodney didn't show his face in the mess hall for meals. Radek reported quietly that Rodney ate at his desk, and took a tray back to his room in the evening.
Sheppard, who was a private person himself, didn't try and intrude, but he did spend the most time visiting the labs and chatting casually with Rodney while he worked. Occasionally he'd arrive in the middle of one of Rodney's trademark tirades, and he'd lounge in the doorway until the unfortunate victim scuttled off.
Radek, who had seen it all before, just rolled his eyes, waited until Rodney caught his breath, and volunteered his opinion.
Nearly a week after Rodney's life-altering experience, Sheppard dropped by the labs in the late afternoon and found Rodney beaming and Radek looking glum. John couldn't help but smile at the wide grin on Rodney's face.
"What's up, guys?"
"Is not fair," Radek said gloomily.
"Sheppard," Rodney said excitedly. "Check this out!" He stepped over to a gadget on his desk and picked it up. It glowed a bright blue and pulsed gently.
"Rodney," Sheppard said, genuinely surprised. "You have the gene?"
"He had the ATA treatment," Radek reported. "Two bodies and both times it takes. Is not fair." Then he muttered something in Czech and wandered away.
"Sour grapes," Rodney accused smugly. "Isn't it great? I feel like I can put up with anything now that I have the gene again."
"It's excellent," Sheppard dutifully replied, but Rodney didn't even seem to hear him.
"And best of all, Carson once told me that the younger the successful subject is, the stronger the gene seems to be. I checked and I am the youngest recipient on record. So my control is bound to be phenomenal. Probably even rivaling your own."
"Now now, Rodney, it's not a competition," John smiled. "Although if it was I'd totally win."
"Huh," Rodney scoffed. "Care to make a little wager, Colonel? How about a test in a jumper?"
"Oh, you are so on."
Rodney grinned, his dimple creasing his cheek, his soft brown eyes shining. "You know what? I think I'm going to be just fine."
"So, he's fine?"
"He says he's fine."
Elizabeth frowned and took a sip of her tea. "Do you believe him?"
Sheppard considered it. "Well, he's still eating his meals alone. And he's putting Teyla off when she invites him to train with her."
"I don't know what it means." Sheppard admitted. "Maybe he really is fine. Maybe he's hanging on by his fingernails, I honestly don't know. I can't shake this feeling though..."
"That the other shoe hasn't dropped yet."
The other shoe dropped a few days later, co-incidentally while Sheppard was reviewing supply lists with Elizabeth.
"Zelenka to Colonel Sheppard."
John tapped his commlink. "Sheppard here."
"Colonel, can you come to the jumper bay? It's Rodney."
Sheppard was already on his feet, the tone of Radek's voice telling its own story. "I'll be right there. It's Rodney," he told Elizabeth.
Radek was standing outside an open jumper, wringing his hands. "Thank goodness," he muttered, then nodded into the jumper. "I don't know what happened, but he won't talk to me. I chased everybody away, I think you are the only one who might reach him right now."
"Thanks, Radek. Stand guard, will you?"
Radek nodded and Sheppard stepped up the ramp and into the jumper. The hatch doors were closed and he palmed the control, spotting Rodney straight away, sitting hunched on the floor by the main console. A compartment was open, exposing wires and crystals.
Sheppard took the situation in at a glance, and sank down on the floor by the pilot's seat, reaching for the switch and closing the hatch doors again.
"Hey, buddy," he said gently. "What's going on?"
"My hands," Rodney muttered into his knees. He flexed his fingers, peering through his tangled curls at his own hands.
"Did you hurt yourself?" Sheppard reached out and touched a soft, pink palm. Rodney's hands seemed unmarked.
"I used to have big hands," Rodney said dully. "Big, manly hands. Not that I sat around admiring them or anything. They were just.. there, you know? A part of me."
Sheppard nodded his understanding.
"I can't reach the upper console any more," Rodney continued. "I mean, what if we were in an emergency situation and you needed me to access an upper console?"
"We'll get boxes. We'll fit every jumper with one."
Rodney shook his head in despair. "Look at this," he said, twisting and pulling the compartment open even further. He reached in and ran his hands over the array of crystals. "I used to be able to fit half a dozen of these at a time with one hand," he said desperately. "Now I need both. My hands are too damn small!" He slammed the compartment shut and kicked out at the pilot's seat with one booted foot. "I can't do anything any more! I can't do this!"
"Yes, you can," Sheppard told him firmly. "You are. You've been doing it."
"No," Rodney shook his head, curls flying. "You don't know, nobody does. Every day is a struggle. Every minute of every day." His eyes met Sheppard's, feverish and damp. "I've tried, I have, but it's too hard. I give up, I can't do it any more."
"Giving up is not an option, McKay," Sheppard said sternly.
"I'm not one of your damned marines, Colonel. I can give up if I want to."
"No you can't, because I won't let you. None of your friends will."
Rodney just shook his head and Sheppard reached out and grabbed his pointed chin, meeting stormy brown eyes squarely.
"Look at me, Rodney," he said sharply. "You got a raw deal, okay? Somebody stole your body and changed your whole life, and it's tough. I won't lie to you, it's gonna be tough for a long time."
Rodney stared at him miserably. "Are you trying to cheer me up? Because you really suck at it."
"I'm not trying to cheer you up. I'm being honest with you. Your entire life has changed - and nothing will ever be the same."
Rodney frowned. "Okay, did I mention the sucking of you, at this?"
"But as bad as it is, and as sick as you must be of hearing this. It could have been worse."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, this is the part where you tell me I could have died. Well save your --"
"You did die," Sheppard interrupted tensely. "You died on the floor in those ruins, right in front of my eyes. And there wasn't anything I could do about it."
Rodney stared at him, mouth half open.
"I was trying to breathe the life back into you and I could feel you getting colder under my hands." Sheppard did not tear his gaze from Rodney's, even as memories of that night assailed him. "Ronon and I built a stretcher out of branches and blankets and we carried you through that forest in the dark to the stargate. Teyla lit the way ahead of us, even though she could hardly see through her tears."
Rodney blinked, his own eyes moist, his face pale.
"They were some of the worst hours of my whole life."
"...really?" Rodney said in a small voice. "Of your whole life?"
Sheppard half nodded, half shrugged.
Rodney thought about it for a moment. "Thanks," he whispered.
Sheppard sighed, coming back to the present. The anguish of those memories was still there, but they were tempered by the bright spark of life in front of him. Different on the outside from the man he'd known, but still so obviously Rodney McKay that he'd recognized him almost instantly that day in the infirmary. And that instant feeling of grateful relief hadn't faded, despite the worry and Rodney's own loss.
"I know it's tough, and it sucks," Sheppard said quietly. "And it's ten kinds of unfair. But it really is better than the alternative."
"Like her," Rodney said abruptly. "Lilya. I think about her sometimes." He huffed a weary breath. "Every time I look in the mirror, actually. She was just a kid, you know? And her life was stolen away from her because they wanted me."
"You know that's not your fault though, right?"
"I know," Rodney admitted. "But I'm walking around in her body. And she's just... gone. It's not even like it's that bad a body," he said reasonably. "I mean, it's full of energy. And I can crawl under consoles for hours without getting a back ache. Oh, and I tried orange juice the other day."
"How was it?"
Rodney grimaced. "Kind of overrated, actually."
"So it is, it's a perfectly serviceable body. It's just, not mine, you know?"
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Rodney idly nudging the pilot seat with his boot. "All my plans," he murmured. "Even ones I didn't know I had. Marriage. Fatherhood. Just... gone."
And what could Sheppard say to that?
"There's no going back, is there?" Rodney said quietly.
"I knew that in my head," Rodney admitted. "But I guess part of me was still waiting for that last minute save. The big miraculous finish. We kinda got in the habit of pulling those off."
"We sure did," Sheppard agreed.
Rodney tilted his head back, a damp sheen glimmering in his eyes. "This is forever," he whispered, and Sheppard did something he freely admitted he never would have done for Rodney before. He stretched out his arm and wrapped it around narrow shoulders, drawing Rodney close and tucking him against his side.
"Yeah it is," he murmured.
Rodney gave a deep sigh and let his head fall onto Sheppard's shoulder. "I don't think I like being brave," he murmured wearily. "I was so much more comfortable as a coward."
Sheppard smiled, feeling soft curls stroke his cheek. Resignation was setting in, he could hear it in Rodney's voice, feel it in the lax set of weary limbs.
It was a beginning.
"You haven't been a coward for a long time. Would I have a coward on my team?"
"Maybe," Rodney muttered. He lifted his head and frowned at Sheppard. "You still want me on your team?"
"Of course," Sheppard said honestly. "If you start training with Teyla, build up some muscles on these scrawny arms."
"And you don't think I'll be a liability?" Rodney asked earnestly.
"No more than you were before."
Rodney looked surprised, then he grimaced and smirked. "Oh, I get it. Funny."
John heaved himself up and held out a hand, tugging Rodney onto his feet. "Don't worry about it, McKay. As soon as you can lift a P-90, you're back on the team."
"Okay," Rodney agreed, and Sheppard shook his head and ruffled brown curls before opening the hatch doors. "Come on, let's go get something to eat."
"Hey, what's up with that?" Rodney said indignantly, following him down the ramp and into the jumper bay. He sketched a casual wave at Zelenka on the way past. "Oh, hey, Radek. Sheppard! What's with the hair ruffling? You never ruffled my hair before."
Sheppard winked at a relieved looking Radek and led the way to the transporter. "You never used to have all those Shirley Temple curls before."
"I've been thinking of cutting them off," Rodney confided.
"Don't you dare! You'd look weird and I don't hang around with weirdos."
"Since when?" Rodney smirked. "And how exactly could I look any weirder than this?"
"You don't look weird now. I told you already, you look cute."
"I do not." Doors opened and closed and they stepped into the mess hall. "Really? Cute?"
John smirked. "As a bug's ear."