"Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad."
They were late for check-in, walking across a field toward the Stargate at a brisk pace when John first noted that something was wrong. McKay was bringing up the rear, a determined frown on his face that seemed to deepen every time John turned to check on his progress. Rodney tended to lag behind on missions where they came across peaceful cultures (he also tended to characterize them as useless, which meant that the scientist had pretty much two classifications for their off-world missions: useless and deadly), but by the fifth time John looked back, he noted that McKay had slowed almost to a stop. Something about the way he held the life-signs detector—both hands, which for Rodney was like broadcasting that whatever it was displaying had his full attention—told John that a teasing approach would be unwise, so he settled for gruff and direct.
"What is it, Rodney? We're late as it is," John said, turning around and walking backwards for a few paces before stopping, as a subtle hint. There was a long pause, during which Ronon and Teyla both scanned the area, picking up on the sudden tension.
"We can't go back this way," Rodney said. He sounded unsure, his brows furrowing as he took a halting step forward, peering at the display.
"Why not?" Ronon asked, annoyance drawing the syllables out. Their mission had been long and tedious and had mostly involved standing and waiting while the small contingent of town leaders conferred with each other. Even Teyla had begun to display a note of impatience in her negotiations after the third hour.
"There's—" Rodney stopped and frowned again, looking up at the three of them as he lowered one hand to scratch absently at his forearm. "There's something ahead of us. Correction," he added, his usual superiority bleeding through the uncertainty in his voice, "—several somethings."
"We saw nothing threatening on our walk from the gate to the settlement," Teyla said. "Are you saying—"
"I don't know… It keeps changing." Rodney pointed at the matted grass path ahead of them in an almost accusatory gesture. "One minute I'm getting the same clusters of readings I got on the planet with the Wraith that refused to die, the next minute the screen is completely blank. I've never seen this device malfunction before."
"Those bugs were annoying, yes, but they weren't dangerous," John said, picturing the satisfying crater the drone had made out of that damned Wraith's body.
"Yes, well, the intensity of these emissions is about ten times as strong, Colonel. Not to mention the fact that I'm pretty sure by the way they're stacked on top of each other, they're either flying or…" McKay's voice trailed off as he anxiously shifted on his feet, shrugging his shoulders as though his uniform jacket was too tight. John knew exactly how Rodney felt, an involuntary shiver shooting through him at the thought of a swarm of large alien insects.
"I hate those things," he felt compelled to say. A horrible thought occurred to him, and he rubbed at his neck self-consciously. "You don't think…"
"I'll go check it out," Ronon said, jogging off toward where McKay had pointed before John even had a chance to say 'no, you won't.' John turned his thoughts toward a secondary approach to the Stargate, his eyes narrowed against the setting suns as he watched the horizon for Ronon's return. After a few minutes, Rodney abruptly let out a choked cry and stumbled past him.
"Rodney!" John yelled after him—and it was just the unexpectedness of the situation that caused his voice to break like that, nothing more, or so he told himself. "Slow down—what is it?" He took a quick moment to glance at Teyla, who nodded and gripped her P-90 firmly, swinging it around to a battle ready position as he set off towards McKay.
Rodney was trembling as he held his own P-90 at firing position, and just as John reached him at the top of the rise, he fired a wide burst across the meadow in front of the Stargate. His form was good, steady despite his obvious nervousness, and it would have made John proud but for the heart-stopping knowledge that Ronon was quite possibly in the line of fire.
"Rodney?" John said with as much sharpness and urgency in his voice as he dared. The scientist held his stance for a long minute during which John desperately wished he could see his friend's face, to gain some clue as to what the hell was going on. Suddenly, McKay twisted his upper body as though ducking something, dropping the large gun at his feet in the process. Moving swiftly, John kicked it clear of the both of them and reached out, grasping Rodney by the shoulder and turning him. Rodney had retrieved his life-signs detector from a vest pocket and was rubbing it along the length of his left arm, staring alternatively at it and the sky just past John's head, his entire body hunched over and tense.
Seeing him like this was terrifying, and the speed of it had left John speechless.
Rodney was muttering something under his breath, but John couldn't make it out when he leaned closer. It had none of the cadence of his usual rants, none of the stop-motion flow of his breathless brainstorms for ideas. Seeing Teyla circling around them out of the corner of his eye sharpened John's focus, and he tightened his grip on Rodney's shoulders.
"John?" Rodney didn't look up when he spoke, and he sounded completely lost. John's back started to ache a little and he realized he'd been holding himself rigid, bracing himself for McKay to collapse. Collapse physically, though—not…
"Yeah," he answered. Rodney's knuckles were white from his grip on the device, fingers so sweaty that John could see visible fingerprints still moist on the display. The completely blank display.
"I see them," Rodney murmured. "I—this is stupid," he said, his voice gaining some strength as he started to straighten. John stepped back a pace to give the scientist some room to recover, and McKay drew himself up swiftly, eyes scrunched shut and shadowed in the pale skin of his face. John shot a look over to where Teyla was standing, back to him, alert and watchful. As though she had sensed his gaze, she turned to offer him a tight smile and to nod toward the Stargate, where Ronon stood prepared to dial the gate at his signal.
"McKay?" John said, his hands held out awkwardly, ready to rush forward either in rescue or in self-defense, if need be. "What exactly are you seeing?"
"Nothing, I…" Rodney took a deep breath and spoke again. "What I'm seeing, I'm not—I can't be seeing. They're not there—the life-signs detector was part of the… For a while, until I— Right. Not there, not there," Rodney chanted. John held up his arm and circled it, indicating to Ronon that he should dial the gate; he then motioned to Teyla to head toward the Stargate. Rodney was starting to sound more like himself, but…
"Definitely not there," McKay said again, more forcefully, though he hadn't moved and his eyes were still shut. "Okay, that's the last time I let you pack the powerbars for my vest, Colonel, because you always give me Vanilla Crisp." His eyes popped open and regarded John with such a normal, reproachful look that John's breath caught, unprepared and unguarded. "You know I hate—" he broke off, his bright blue eyes tracking something that John couldn't see. "Oh, my God. It didn't work." Exasperation gave way to frightened resignation in his voice, and the life-signs detector slid smoothly through Rodney's nerveless fingers as he crumpled onto the grass, unconscious.
Rodney didn't wake up for a full fifteen minutes, during which John made sure to ask Ronon what he'd found near the Stargate(which was nothing) and where he'd been during the gunfire (which was, luckily, investigating the tree line). The other man hadn't found any indications of animal activity, flying or otherwise—meaning that whatever Rodney had seen was probably going to turn out to be more Pegasus than Milky Way in terms of weirdness, John was sure. Dr. Keller had initially seemed pleased to be able to diagnose McKay without being subjected to a constant stream of irrelevant symptoms and complaints about the medical profession, but her face had fallen into a much more serious expression after a pass with the scanner.
"I'm seeing normal amounts of brain activity for someone who's unconscious," she told John. "Nothing to indicate a significant lapse in standard function—you said he was seeing and reacting to things that weren't there?"
"Well," John hedged, "none of us saw anything, but that doesn't mean there wasn't anything to see. McKay said something about convincing himself what he was seeing wasn't real before he..." John paused and smiled, despite himself, then went on. "Before he passed out. Didn't seem to be working very well."
"Oh, lovely," a weak but acerbic voice said behind them. "Waking up in the infirmary is just never a good thing."
"Beats the alternative," John said, turning around to see his friend sitting up gingerly, a momentary wince of pain crossing his face as he supported his weight on one arm.
"A fact you seem bound and determined to prove, someday," Rodney shot back with some semblance of his usual temper.
"Do you remember anything, Rodney?" Jennifer asked, glancing over at one of the nurses and nodding when the man gestured toward the scanner.
"Yes, unfortunately," Rodney said. "I assume by the looks on your faces that no swarms of alien bees materialized after I passed out?" he asked sourly. He said the last without so much as a stop for breath, which John found very amusing.
"No bees," Keller said with cheerful regret, her eyes warning John that now was not the time to make jokes. "I would like you to let me do another scan now that you're awake, though."
"I feel fine—look, I'm sure all of this was just a product of, of being on my feet too long during the mission and Sheppard sticking me with the bad-tasting powerbars," Rodney protested. He gestured with his thumb toward the infirmary door. "I just need to eat, that's all."
"Your EEG could show—McKay!"
Rodney had pulled himself to his feet and started toward the exit before the doctor could even get half of her protests out, waving his hands dismissively and saying something about hypoglycemia. He was stalled at the door by the nurse from earlier, who, on second glance, looked less like a nurse and more like a cross between Mr. Wizard and a middle linebacker. John lifted an eyebrow and glanced over at Dr. Keller.
"He's not gonna shut up about the food thing," he said. "It's either MREs here or the mess hall. Want me to keep an eye on him?"
"Yeah, if you would," Keller said, crossing her arms with a sigh. "Any sign of agitated behavior…"
"This is McKay we're talking about," John pointed out with half a grin.
"Will someone tell this guy he missed his calling as event security? Excuse me, starving man here!" Rodney's complaints traveled easily across the infirmary to where John and Keller were standing.
"You better go," Jennifer said to him with mock seriousness, nodding assent to the nurse in Rodney's way as John offered her a wry smile and headed toward the door. McKay was already turning the corner ahead of him toward the mess hall when John entered the hallway, and he jogged forward to catch up, still feeling a bit uneasy. He'd been given training for how to deal with injuries to those under his command, but seeing Rodney confused like that tossed all of it out the window. Having a member of his team in the infirmary always made him feel antsy and helpless, but right now John felt frustrated, full of directionless anger.
"Hey, McKay, slow down, it's not like it's Salisbury steak day!" John called out as he got closer. He was gratified to see that the scientist had slowed to a stop at the end of the long corridor ahead of him, but as he neared the man, John's heart began to pump faster—and not because of the exertion.
Rodney was staring out of the window, looking stricken. His senses all on high alert, John moved to stand a few feet beside him, wishing he'd thought to bring Ronon and his stunner along; there was no telling what Rodney might be capable of, even unarmed. John lifted his hand to his headset and then paused. He wanted to call Keller, call Carter, call someone and demand that they figure out what was going on right now, and the hell with the Ancient scanner's lack of findings. He didn't want to spook McKay, though, not next to breakable glass.
Rodney's shoulders tensed for a moment and John recognized this body language from his behavior on M7G-519. Scanning the space between McKay and the window, John's mind raced, calculating trajectories while somewhere in the back of his head, Kate Heightmeyer's voice asked him the same question she'd posited during their last session, the one that always seemed to plague him every time he had to face the reality of a teammate in danger. If you lost someone important to you and had to look back, would you be happy with the way you lived your life to that point?
John really, really didn't want to answer that.
Rodney's right hand whipped up to his radio in a motion reminiscent of his rush past John on the planet, and John moved purposefully forward, meaning to stand between Rodney and the window—until McKay spoke, his voice as sharp as John had ever heard it.
"Radek! When were you going to tell me you submerged the city? How could this possibly have been information I did not need to know?" Rodney's face was red, furious, his free hand clenching and releasing in the same rushed rhythm as his harsh breathing. There was a pregnant pause during which John tried to catch his breath and imagined that Zelenka was doing the same.
"Rodney, I— I assure you—"
"I'll explain later, Radek," John cut in, closing the channel and crossing the distance between Rodney and himself in a few quick steps. He wanted to be more clear but knew that Rodney would undoubtedly argue the point, confusing the Czech scientist further. "Hey, look at me," he instructed McKay, who had stepped closer to the window in frozen fascination.
"Watch out! I have no intention of losing you to something as stupid as drowning via gross incompetence!" Rodney shouted the last phrase over his shoulder at the figure coming toward them, just barely visible at the end of the hallway. It was hard to tell who it was, since McKay was forcibly dragging him away from the stained glass as though their lives depended on it. Which, John supposed, was probably the point, at least in Rodney's mind.
"Slow down," John said. "Tell me what you see."
For a long moment it looked as though Rodney was going to snap at him, too, but suddenly all of the tension fell away as though leeched from him by John's words, and he turned to look at the window that was now ten feet from them.
"Water," he said flatly. "We're— It looks like we're submerged."
John remembered the driving rain and desperation he'd experienced as a part of Rodney's nightmare, feeling the cold drops as though they were sliding down his spine at that exact moment.
"Okay," he said, keeping his voice calm. He steadied his hand by twisting his arm in Rodney's grip and clasping him, like for like, palm to forearm, gently. "We're at the outer edge of the control tower right now—are you saying you see the shield, or…" Rodney turned back to fix him with a penetrative look.
"No shield, just water," he said. "That—that can't be right, can it?" McKay sounded less upset than speculative now, and John congratulated himself on having turned the situation into something for his friend to analyze, rather than worry over.
"Colonel, I was just coming to find you," Colonel Carter said from behind John. Her voice was carefully bland, with just enough force of authority to it that he saw Rodney visibly relax, just slightly. The movement shifted the position of their near-handclasp, and McKay jumped away when John's fingers brushed over the fabric of his inner arm.
"I was just escorting Rodney back to the infirmary," John said in a voice that brooked no argument. "What do you need?"
"I spoke to Dr. Zelenka," Carter started to say, stopping when Rodney winced. "We need to get to the bottom of this," she said next, dropping all pretence. "I'd like for you to stick close to the infirmary for the next few hours if you would, Rodney. From what Teyla has told me, you've been clearly affected by something, possibly originating from M7G-519."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Rodney managed as they crossed into the infirmary. Dr. Keller was waiting, and John figured that Colonel Carter must have called ahead. Though he had let go of McKay for the short walk back, they were still walking close enough for John to feel Rodney draw himself up stiffly before taking a breath and stepping toward Keller.
"Well, then. Bloodletting or the scanner?" he said, his voice firm but a little higher than normal. "And, I'd like to add that I never thought I'd be happy to note that there are no windows in the infirmary." A jerky movement of Rodney's hands caught John's eye—Rodney was tugging at his left uniform sleeve in a way that seemed… fussy, out of character. He was about to say something when Jennifer reached out to touch her fingertips to the fabric, her eyes narrowed slightly. As the two walked toward the scanner room, he heard her asking him to take the jacket off. John let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, relieved to see someone else expressing the same level of concern he felt.
John turned, startled. Colonel Carter was sparing in her use of his first name, but she looked worried, and he was sure his expression matched hers. "Yeah."
"I think you and Ronon should head back to M7G-519 and ask around." Carter's gaze was direct. "If McKay's behavior is familiar to them, maybe they can tell us what this thing is and how to counteract it."
"Agreed," John said, already heading toward the door. "Ronon—meet me in the Gateroom," he called into his radio. He noted that the colonel hadn't suggested they bring Teyla, and John wondered if that meant he had tacit approval to find out what was going on—by any means necessary.
"Ronon, is that thing set to stun?" John said, glaring darkly at the Zeifan emissary that blocked their path.
"Please, you don't understand," the man said, still surprisingly calm despite the glower on both John and Ronon's faces. "These rituals are passed down—"
"No, you don't understand. We don't care about your rituals," Ronon bit out.
"All we're asking for is an antidote or some kind of explanation of the process," John said, annoyance and barely controlled anger pulling out his pronunciation.
"That is exactly—"
"Pasav, enough," a deep voice intoned from the nearby curtained doorway. "I will handle the accounting of this."
"About time," John said under his breath. It had taken the two of them a half hour to reach the stone meeting house at the edge of the settlement, and another fifteen to find anyone who would admit to anything more than a startled recognition of the symptoms they were describing. When they were stalled at the temple's front entranceway, Ronon had lost patience and walked past the flustered gatekeeper with John in tow. They'd turned into the first hallway they'd seen, moving forward until they had been greeted by yet another caretaker. John had never thought living in the Pegasus galaxy would make him appreciate the 'efficiency' of the SGC.
"Please allow me to apologize for the delay." The man stepped forward and offered them a grave smile that sat uneasily on his pale face. He motioned them through the doorway he'd just exited, offering them seats on the sparse cushions that littered the floor.
"I'll stand, thanks," Ronon said with such restrained animosity that John had to choke back a rough laugh.
"Of course," the man said. "I am Lanaj, the Proctor of our order—and I see that you are concerned for your friend, so I'll delay no further to impart the explanation you seek. You mention erratic behavior, irrational fears?" he asked John, the ceremonial tone he was using faltering as he shot Ronon a nervous glance.
"Yes, exactly—and our doctor found a small bite mark on—"
"The lower leg, or possibly a forearm?" Lanaj guessed. "Yes, that fits," he said, almost to himself. "There is an insect we call Elytra whose venom causes these effects. It sounds likely—"
"Do you have the antidote?" John interrupted, his eyes flicking to Ronon in an unspoken command—as soon as they received it, Ronon should be the one to head for the gate.
"There is no antidote. The poison must work through the system naturally, with the help of the afflicted," the Proctor said in a hushed voice. "It is through this ritual that the penitent of our order are received to serve as priests."
"You actually use this stuff as…" John trailed off, his disappointment warring with disgust. The idea of willingly putting anyone he knew through the fear and self-doubt he had seen in McKay was just unthinkable.
"It is a cleansing," Lanaj insisted. "The Elytra's venom can be manipulated by those with a strong will. It is a miedomas, a fear-trigger. By focusing their consciousness on the fears that center on the abstract, the afflicted can center themselves, keeping their mind from tearing itself apart."
John really, really wished Teyla had come back with them. "Tearing itself apart?" he said, his voice thick with dread. Rodney was… well, Rodney was the most frightened person he'd ever known. Even everyday meals were life-threatening to the scientist. If surviving this thing had to do with mastering his fears…
"Yes. With each progressive cycle, the strain on their sanity increases. If during the ritual, the penitent has not been able to direct his consciousness by the beginning of the fourth cycle, the dream-state reality of their deepest fears can become the entirety of their world. You must tell your friend to—
"How long is a cycle?" Ronon interrupted, his posture that of someone preparing to bolt. John tried to remember what time they'd left Atlantis, the position of the sun when they'd arrived on this planet the first time, the position it had been in when they'd hurried through it an hour ago...
"We measure our days by half-points—the sun reaches seven of these a day. The cycle of the Elytra venom is almost a full half-point—"
"Forty-five minutes," John said a few seconds later. "He's almost there already. Go," he told Ronon, who had barely waited for his order. Turning back to the Proctor, he said evenly, "Anything else I should know?"
John tried to listen to the man's hasty, whispered explanation of the ritual's process, but inwardly, he was seething. This culture's emphasis on secrecy had endangered Rodney's life! His team had spent a pleasant (though boring) half day with these people, even going as far as to tentatively suggest leasing fertile farmland—and all the while their city leaders had stayed silent about the threat of this 'Elytra' insect. By the reactions of the townspeople he'd spoken to, John shuddered to think what their behavior would be toward one of their own—one who wasn't an aspirant to the priesthood—should they be bitten. Suddenly the decorative cloth that bound their wrists and ankles made a lot more sense.
"Your friend," Lanaj said quietly, stepping close to John so that his words wouldn't carry far. "Tell him to focus himself on interpersonal fears rather than corporal ones—those fears which can kill the body will kill his spirit."
The look of pity on Lanaj's pale face haunted John during his headlong rush back to the Gate; each time his feet touched the ground his mind marked time, against his will. John couldn't stop himself from counting, couldn't stop himself from thinking that the higher the numbers went, the less time Rodney had.
Dr. Keller was being completely unreasonable. Rodney had calculated everything down to its finest point—he knew exactly how strong the EMP should be calibrated, exactly how long to wait before releasing the pulse. More importantly, he knew that if the infirmary staff would just listen to him, none of their precious, mostly irrelevant pieces of equipment would be at risk.
At least Jennifer had finally agreed to lock off the scanner room, promising to keep it that way until it could be thoroughly inspected in a clean-room environment. Given that the thing had infected him in the first place, it was to be expected that the machine would be clever enough to mask the signatures of the nanites in his body, he'd figured that out immediately. But the two people—the two doctors—with the best qualifications to identify and destroy the things that were eating him (assimilating him, Rodney thought with a shudder) from the inside were convinced he was just hallucinating.
As if they'd never encountered two very bad things happening to them at the same time on the Atlantis expedition!
His voice was hoarse after a full half hour of arguments that had mostly consisted of him screaming at the top of his lungs, and he'd finally retreated to a private room, sitting on a bed in the corner with his knees drawn up. Rodney tried to imagine what they would do to him once they realized their mistake—send him back to Earth, probably, lock him up in a cell deep in Cheyenne Mountain. There were no windows in those rooms—nothing to look at but solid rock, anyway—and there weren't many things Rodney hated more in an enclosed environment than recirculated air. He let his head fall back against the metal wall and, out of the corner of his eye, caught a glimpse of a wall as black as the void between galaxies. When he turned his head, though, it was gone.
He wondered what John would say when he came back with the antidote. He'd be furious, probably, maybe even devastated at the thought of losing a friend. Quietly resentful, like he'd been with Elizabeth. It was too much to hope for more of a reaction than that—Rodney knew John didn't see him that way, didn't see men that way. And of course, Rodney couldn't allow himself to touch John, not even to say goodbye, because he wasn't going to spread these things, not to someone he… Not to John.
Rodney looked at the clock someone had wedged onto the wall; it looked as alien sitting there as an Ancient door console would look at the SGC. They'd been gone nearly an hour; John would be back soon. He rested his forehead on his knees, relishing the ache in his lower back and thighs as he thought about the irony of it all. The nanites were sure to have cured whatever affliction that had caused his hallucinations—the same hallucinations that had prompted his being scanned by the infected scanner.
A sidelong glance at the table beside the bed revealed a laptop—a Macintosh, one of the new ones that the IOA kept telling him weren't necessary or cost effective for the expedition. He found himself staring at it and at the strangely delicate chain that secured it to the nightstand. When he focused on these things too strongly, though, they seemed to haze out, almost as if they were moving in and out of phase. It was surreal, and Rodney couldn't help but think about Elizabeth and what she had said she'd gone through when this had happened to her. He thought about his sister, too; about how he'd worked so hard to save her (and how he wasn't allowed to save himself the same way for fear that he'd contaminate their internal network), and how admittedly cool it had been to see the things healing her, working the way they'd been designed to.
He thought about what it would be like to try an orange or a lemon, whether the nanites would repair him quickly enough for him to actually taste it.
"Rodney?" John's tousled head popped around the doorframe, his eyes scanning the room for life before he saw Rodney. By the careful way Sheppard entered the room, Rodney knew Sam had probably told him what she thought was going on. The black wall hovered on the edges of his eye line again—on both sides of him this time—but Rodney focused his attention on John and the gnawing, anticipatory anxiety that rolled in his stomach.
"Colonel," Rodney greeted John stiffly, though it felt strange to be addressing the man so formally while he himself was practically huddled in a corner. Rodney didn't move, though, just straightened his back a little and lifted his chin, daring Sheppard to contradict what Rodney knew was happening to himself. To his surprise, however, John didn't launch into a long (and fruitless) argument about exactly how and why Rodney was wrong about the nanites.
"Talked to one of their ceremonial guys," John said, leaning against the wall opposite Rodney, tension evident in every muscle. "That bite is from a pretty nasty sounding bug; the venom messes with the fear center in your brain and makes you see, hear, and feel… well, you can figure it out."
"I guess it's a good thing the serum's probably out of my system by now then, eh?" Rodney was going for flippant, but he fell short of the mark, the fear in his voice taking all of the bite from his words.
"Damnit, Rodney! Okay, screw this, there isn't time," John exploded. "You have to listen to me, and I don't care if you don't believe me—you're going to try this anyway." He stood up and walked over, right to the edge of the bed where Rodney was sitting. The strange blurred afterimage of blackness that Rodney had been seeing melted away from his sight, leaving only John.
"Focus, McKay," he said. "I'm not going to argue with you. If you're right, nothing changes—if I'm right, you don't go crazy and die, so you'll forgive me if I'm not very sympathetic right now. The priest or whatever he was I spoke to said that the only way to survive this is to concentrate on very specific fears. You have to focus on non-lethal fears, ones that—"
Rodney couldn't help but interrupt. "Wouldn't it be better just to knock me out? I don't know if you've noticed, but pretty much everything in this galaxy is lethal! It doesn't matter anyway—purging the venom was probably the first thing the nanites did." John shook his head at this.
"Even if you were right and I was wrong, Elizabeth was unconscious, remember? Knocking you out isn't going to save you from anything. You'll just dream it, instead."
He didn't want to think about that. Thinking along those lines only led to wondering how much of the last day, week—month had been real. What if this 'bug bite' scenario was merely a distraction created by the nanites in order to prevent Rodney from figuring out what was happening to him? What if he was already locked up somewhere at Area 51 or in the SGC? The undercurrent of panic that he'd finally managed to tamp back surged to the forefront of his consciousness again.
John's hand interrupted his train of thought, rough and surprising on his chin as the other man held him firmly, forcing him to pay attention. Rodney wanted to twist away, to protest that John could get infected, and that wasn't what Rodney wanted at all. But for some reason, this didn't seem quite as urgent when he was looking at John. When, after a long minute, he dragged his eyes away from John's frantic hazel ones, the room looked exactly as it ought to, completely in focus.
"The venom works in cycles, Rodney. That's why you aren't convinced we're underwater anymore—remember that? The problem is, the longer someone's exposed, the harder it is for them to differentiate between the hallucination and reality." John's fingers on his face tightened almost painfully, and Rodney felt like his entire body, all of his consciousness, was focused on that connection. "It won't be long before the next one starts and you have to concentrate on a non-lethal fear, you hear me? Think of Kavanagh getting a Nobel, picture yourself dropping a ZPM, anything, just not something physical."
"That's great—the survivalist version of 'don't think of a purple cow,' thank you so much for that," Rodney grumbled, ignoring the rush of hope at the thought that maybe, just maybe, he wasn't infected after all. "Do you have any idea just how many terrifying and life-threatening things happen to me just about every day?" John's last sentence finally registered. "And there's no way that weak-willed little moron would ever be awarded a—"
"I don't care what you pick, Rodney," John said, gritting his teeth, "but you have to do it now. Think about…" Sheppard paused, frowning, then went on. "Think about something personal, like, I don't know, Katie."
Colonel Carter's voice at the door prevented John from making any other suggestions, but Rodney's heart sank just the same when Sheppard pulled away and walked to the door, brushing the same hand he'd been touching Rodney with against the leg of his BDUs. He shut his eyes against the image, tried to tell himself that Sheppard was doing it reflexively, without realizing it, but it still hurt in an abstract way, like it was a symbol of what he meant to John.
John had meant to force him into thinking about his own personal failures, of which Katie was probably one of the biggest, relationship-wise—but in that context there was only one person Rodney could think of.
Rodney's knees slid away from him as he shifted forward and stared at the floor. He wasn't a morose person, and it wasn't like he usually dwelled on all the horrible things that had happened since—'and okay,' he thought to himself, 'That's probably steering in the wrong direction.'
So… John. John turning away from him. John wiping his hand off as though touching Rodney was distasteful. Rodney's own hands clenched into fists, hating this, hating that stupid bug and the whole Pegasus galaxy with its life-sucking Wraith and its crazy nuclear Amish and, 'Wow,' he thought to himself, 'this is harder than it sounds.' The trouble was, Rodney hardly ever let himself dwell on his feelings for John without taking the time to carefully construct mental barriers against all of the things that just… hurt too much. Now he had to strip them all away—and he was surprised to realize that the intensity of his emotions hadn't really lessened at all. He'd just buried them very, very deep.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" John said, bursting into his room in a storm of fury. "What were you trying to accomplish? You've got Carson complaining that she's too healthy, for God's sake!"
Rodney blinked. John looked different somehow, but after a bizarre moment of dissociation, he realized what was going on.
"Look, Major, I know it's hard for you to understand, but not everyone is as blinded by her as you seem to be. That woman is hiding something from us, and I want to know what it is!" He got up and marched over to where John was standing, hoping that the other man would take his flushed cheeks as a sign of anger rather than proximity. He had hoped his attraction to Sheppard would turn out to be just that, a fleeting attraction that would fade after they settled into Atlantis, but the more time Rodney spent with him, the stronger it got. Now that they'd started spending some of their free time together playing the civilization game they'd discovered—and Rodney got to see more of the off-duty Sheppard—he was rapidly starting to realize that his crush had dangerous potential.
It wasn't as if he expected anything, really, but this so-called priestess was making the Major act just… just stupid. 'Case in point,' Rodney thought to himself as Major Sheppard fixed him with another angry glare and turned his back, walking away without another word. Chaya was probably waiting for him in the hall—or out on a balcony, too pretty for the besotted Major to leave by herself in such a mundane place. Notwithstanding his fixation on Sheppard, Rodney really did want the Major to be happy—but not with someone who took away his sense of self! John hardly bothered to look anywhere but at her when she was in his company.
Rodney sat back down on a chair beside the bed, wishing that Carson would hurry up with his annual shot. With Atlantis cut off from Earth, keeping up such schedules seemed kind of pointless, but Beckett had insisted. Rodney really hadn't been in the mood to argue, as he was too put out about their new guest to kick up a fuss. It was hard to think of anything else. Little things in his daily routine reminded him of Sheppard—they usually shared at least one meal a day together, their evenings spent exploring the parameters of the new game they'd found—and any thought of missions just made Rodney think about how they'd fought together against the 'Die Hard' Wraith, or how much John had gone through to save Atlantis from Kolya.
At the back of his mind, Rodney felt something move, like someone was shaking their head at his thought process, as if he weren't supposed to be thinking along those lines, but it faded away, and he stood up.
"Carson?" Rodney stuck his head out of the doorway, looking for the familiar figure of his friend. "Carson!" But the Scottish doctor was in a corner of the infirmary with Major Sheppard and Chaya, his nervous hands fluttering from instrument to instrument as he talked animatedly to them. As Rodney watched, Beckett shifted his attention to Sheppard, and Chaya turned around, her eyes finding him immediately. Rodney crossed his arms and glowered at her, but she simply smiled in her annoyingly ethereal way and brushed her hand down Sheppard's sleeve, twining their fingers together.
John didn't pull away. He always pulled away. Something ugly twisted in Rodney's gut, but he shoved it down. He wanted to walk out, but he didn't want to leave, either, so he just sat down where he could watch John and Chaya and waited for Carson. After a few minutes, the trio walked closer and he could hear their conversation.
"I am very grateful to John for showing me around your beautiful city," Chaya said. "We have no great bodies of water like this near to where I live on Proculus—I hope I will have a chance to walk out along one of the piers before I return to my home."
"Oh, that would be lovely," Carson practically gushed. "Major, you might consider taking a bit of food with you and making it a picnic. The view at sunset is spectacular."
The way John's eyes lit up at this suggestion was enough to persuade Rodney that leaning back in his chair against the infirmary wall and shutting his eyes was a very, very good idea.
"I'm sorry, Colonel, but I assure you it's completely confidential, and, well… For all intents and purposes, you've been gone a good while. If I'm to be sure you're healthy, I need to know what you went through on that planet. All of it."
Rodney opened his eyes, startled by the seriousness in Carson's tone. The infirmary was nearly completely dark, including the corner in which he sat. John's chair faced him, but the bearded man in loose, foreign-looking clothes showed no sign of being able to see him.
Rodney wished he knew how long he'd slept—he felt off-balance, like he didn't know quite where he was, or at what time. Beckett had insisted on physicals for everyone who'd gone through the portal, and Rodney's protests of hunger had only netted him a stern glare and a pointed finger toward the chair he was seated in. Rodney wondered whether Carson could be persuaded to believe that he'd passed out from manly hunger rather than fell asleep out of sheer boredom. As he pondered the various angles of approach, his stomach growled, and fear of discovery nearly made his heart stop. Neither John nor Carson seemed to hear him, however, but after a few more minutes, Rodney almost wished they had.
"I— Well. You met Teer," John said.
"'Saw' is more of an accurate statement, but yes," Carson said, his voice expectant. John sighed.
"I lived with her."
"Did you?" Beckett said, sounding as though John had passed on a piece of mundane gossip.
"Damnit, Carson!" John sounded very, very tired. "Can we please just finish up here? I've worn these clothes for almost five months and you have no idea what their idea of showers are."
"Oh, I have an inkling," Beckett said mildly. The doctor had moved to stand directly in John's line of sight, which meant that Rodney could only see Carson's shadowed back—but he could still hear everything. Against his will, Rodney could see the beautiful woman that had stood beside John, proud, as if she'd belonged there. If John really had lived with her (and there was no reason for him to lie to Carson about that, given that their conversation was meant to be confidential) there was no way on Earth—no way in either galaxy that he hadn't slept with her. That made the fact that she'd gone ahead and ascended mystifying to Rodney. She'd spent as much time with John as Rodney had before he'd realized how he felt—and he was sure that, given a choice, he'd never have chosen to leave Sheppard like that, not after so short a time.
It really made Rodney wonder if that was the real reason John was hesitant to answer the question. For all his remarks about John's tendency toward 'Kirk-like behavior,' Rodney didn't really think Sheppard was into casual sex. And it didn't sound like Teer had understood John at all, not after hearing what John had spent those six months doing. John just… he deserved better.
"Yes, all right?" John said quietly.
"Regularly?" Beckett asked after a short pause.
"Jesus, you don't ask for much, do you?"
"I have enough to deal with when it comes to the Wraith, the unknown hazards of the city, and simple Pegasus food allergies, not to mention how often you're throwing yourself into danger, Colonel," Carson said heatedly. "So: no, I don't think it's asking too much."
There was something really stupid about not wanting to cover one's ears like a child when there was no one to see you and laugh, Rodney thought.
"No, Carson, for the last time, I didn't sleep with her!" John shouted.
"If you're looking to convince the whole city, it'll be faster if you just turn on your radio," Carson said. At the sound of his voice, Rodney's eyes flew open and he was suddenly dazzled by the sudden introduction of light. It looked (and felt) like every single light in the infirmary was on. He felt disoriented, and decided that he ought to sit down, but when he moved to do so, he found he was already sitting. Rodney shook his head to clear it, but that didn't seem to help either.
"I'm not saying I would blame you if you did," Beckett said next.
"Back me up here, McKay," John said, wheeling away from Carson angrily to fix Rodney with a penetrating look. Rodney frowned.
"I don't recall being there, actually," Rodney said, just barely remembering not to sound bitter. It had been a long day, and he was really getting tired of alien women throwing themselves at John.
"You think I'm desperate enough to sleep with someone who just wanted my genes?" John hissed.
Rodney absolutely refused to look at Carson. As obvious as the joke was, he didn't particularly feel like being punched in the face, not after having spent the last eight hours being threatened with bullwhips ('seriously?' he'd thought to himself at the time), drones, and suffocation.
"They don't need them anymore anyway," John continued arguing in clipped tones. "We gave them access to the gene therapy. And what happened to confidentiality?"
"Rodney, if you would?" Beckett said. As Rodney gratefully turned to leave, John moved to join him.
"Called my bluff, doc," he said as they left. Though the infirmary was ominously silent, Rodney could almost see the frustrated gesture of dismissal Carson was almost certainly offering the door at that exact moment.
"I didn't, you know," John said to him in the empty hallway.
"I really don't want to know," Rodney said, wishing this were true. "You wouldn't have had to sleep with her to pass on your genes anyway."
"Less fun, though."
"She sounded a little too airheaded, even for you," Rodney said impulsively. "I mean, I don't know—for some reason you seem like you'd go for…"
"Smarter than a rock?" John suggested.
"Yes, exactly." Rodney tapped a finger to his head—and then noticed how much it hurt. He must have spent too long in the lab without so much as a powerbar, or something, though it didn't quite feel like a hunger thing…
"Well I'm sorry, McKay, it just didn't seem like it was any of your business," John said with quiet intensity. Looking down the hallway at the approaching botanists, John closed a tight hand around Rodney's arm and half pulled, half pushed him through a door onto the balcony.
"I'm your friend," Rodney said, hurt. He'd thought they were, anyway. It had been difficult to submerge his stupidly persistent feelings toward Sheppard, but he'd done it, happy that they could at least have that—but now…
"Look, I just didn't—" John broke off. "I didn't feel like thinking about being married. It wasn't…" he walked over to the railing and leaned over to rest his weight on his forearms. "It wasn't me."
"You and she didn't get along?" Rodney asked carefully, moving to stand with his side against the railing. John turned his head slowly and fixed Rodney with a look that wasn't angry, frustrated, or anything he could name. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, but it wasn't an uncomfortable feeling, not really. It felt like waiting.
Rodney wanted to press him for more—well, he always wanted more of John—wanted to tell him that Nancy wasn't right for him anyway, couldn't have been. But Rodney wasn't quite sure how to explain why, so he just stood there looking at John looking back at the ocean.
John's voice came from behind him, and Rodney blinked. The image he'd had of John casually beautiful as he rested on the railing was so strong that he'd actually expected him to be there. Rodney turned and went to where John stood against the wall. Everything was still uncertain, even after last night. It had taken so long for them to finally…
"I—" John broke off, his expression almost helpless. A thick moment passed, and then John was there, pressed close to him, sweaty hands clutching the arms of his uniform jacket. Rodney leaned into the embrace, tipping his head sideways to press his lips against John's neck, feeling the unsteady heartbeat there. John made a noise of protest and slid his hands up Rodney's arms into his hair and onto his face, pulling him back for a kiss that felt like drowning in hot sensation, without any control whatsoever. When Rodney's hands came up to touch John, though, Sheppard pulled away abruptly, backing away.
"I can't. I just… can't," he said, turning his back to Rodney as he walked away without pausing or looking back.
Rodney didn't know how long he'd been sitting, cold and miserable against the hard metal surface of the balcony floor, but no matter how much time passed, he could still feel the weight of John's body against his. He felt wrung out—scoured, as if the wind had ripped at him from multiple directions, tearing off pieces until he was raw and exposed.
A movement to his left caught his attention and Rodney glanced up to see John coming through the doorway quietly. Rodney just looked at him, too tired to say anything. He didn't know what he'd say anyway; right now he felt like every single disagreement they'd ever had was hovering between them.
"How are you feeling?" John asked in a strangely gentle voice. Rodney wanted to laugh. 'Like you just dumped me,' he wanted to say—but that felt wrong somehow, as if that had happened days, weeks earlier. John was still waiting for an answer, though.
"Like a punching bag," Rodney said, surprising himself with the rough rasp that was his voice.
"What time is it?"
"You're asking me?" Rodney did laugh, then, but it sounded limp even to his own ears. He looked out to the sky past the railing to his right and saw that it was dark out. He hadn't expected it to be, but—
"You still with me, buddy?" John said, looking down at him as he settled his back against the wall next to Rodney.
"I don't know how to answer that." Rodney looked away.
"But you remember the hallucinations. That there are—were hallucinations," John said. It was more a statement than a question, and Rodney nodded bleakly. John slid down the wall, their shoulders almost touching each other.
"Yes." He could remember all of them.
"You talked to Carson, back in the infirmary."
"You could hear me? I mean, when I— Out loud?" Rodney asked, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Yeah," John said, his voice carefully neutral in the way Rodney knew meant he was uncomfortable. "I took you out here so you wouldn't— I took you out here."
Rodney didn't think John would be behaving in such an uneasy way over the mention of a dead friend, even one as beloved as Carson. It had to be something more personal. He thought back over the strange dream-memories of his hallucinations, looking for things he'd said to or about John, but everything was all blended together without differentiation.
"I thought you'd be afraid of professional failure—I mean, that you'd have picked… You know." They weren't looking at each other, but Rodney felt John shift restlessly beside him, his black t-shirt sparking heat and something like regret wherever it touched Rodney's arm.
"Not so much," Rodney said simply. "Sorry about that."
Rodney's head whipped around so fast it almost hurt. "What?"
John still wasn't looking at him. "Did you forget what my nightmare was? My greatest fear?" he said, staring without blinking at the lights on a faraway pier.
Rodney hadn't forgotten, but he hadn't really thought about it in this context. He'd nearly died (or as close to it as he ever wanted to come) from that venom, and there was no telling whether he was just having a short reprieve right now or if it had finally all leeched out of him.
They sat there in a taut silence for a while, side by side, until John's shoulder next to him tensed up. Rodney thought he was preparing to get up, but after a few confusing minutes, John's hand moved to cover his on the balcony floor. Rodney closed his eyes, savoring the sensation. When his heart rate had slowed down a bit, he spread his fingers a little so that John's could fall between them—and that was when he finally felt the other man's body relax. It was enough reassurance that Rodney was able to turn and look at John.
He noticed, apropos of nothing, that John wasn't wearing his radio. Then he noticed that John had licked his lips, that he, Rodney, was leaning toward, that they were—
John's lips were soft, yielding, and he made no move to control or dominate, just touch and taste, slowly, so slowly. Rodney squeezed their joined fingers as he pushed forward, his tongue flicking out to trace John's lower lip. John made a noise (or was it Rodney? He couldn't tell) and opened his mouth, moving his body closer as he stroked Rodney's tongue with his. It was amazingly intimate, being able to feel John's personality in the way he moved his mouth, the teasing, reckless slide of teeth and tongue. Rodney imagined this was like what flying felt like to John, like the rush Rodney experienced a few seconds before he hit a breakthrough that he'd known was coming. It felt like potential. It felt too good to be true.
When they both pulled back, Rodney took a moment to lean his forehead against John's.
"If you could leave now, I'd like that," he said sadly.
"Wha— What the hell?" John said sharply; the change from happy contentment to confused anger was immediate. Rodney just nodded, resigned.
"It's just… I was able to cope when it was just jealousy, you know? But having you walk away like that? The once was enough, thank you very much. This way is better," Rodney said, pulling his hand free and rubbing the other protectively over the itchy patch on his forearm. "Though," he added as an afterthought, "I have to admit, my brain is rather clever. It's much more convincing to be able to remember what's been going on."
"You think this is another hallucination," John stated, calming slightly. Rodney shrugged.
"You kissed me back."
"Oh, Rodney," John said fondly, and suddenly he was sliding forward, swinging a leg over Rodney's out-stretched ones and sitting, actually sitting on Rodney's thighs.
"Um, John?" Rodney said, using Sheppard's first name without realizing it. "Surprisingly, I'd really rather get to the miserable portion of this hallucination."
John ignored him, taking off his watch and fiddling with it for a minute.
"It's not a hallucination," he said firmly, holding up the wristwatch so that Rodney could clearly see the face of it. It was displaying a timer whose numbers were counting down rapidly, second by second: 44:05, 43:59, 43:44.
"I tell you what," John said, setting the watch down beside them. "You just do what you would have done any of the other times, and when that alarm goes off, we'll see who's right, ok?"
Rodney really couldn't fault his logic, and, well, John was sitting on his lap. He reached a hand up, curling it around John's neck into his hair, drawing him down for a kiss.
"Maybe my mind just knows I'm more easily seduced by intelligence," Rodney said a few sweetly hesitant kisses later, against John's mouth.
"Should I start rattling off the Riemann-zeta function?" John breathed into his neck.
"Okay, definitely not real, but really, really hot," Rodney said, groaning. "Keep doing that."
By the time they had to get up in deference to aching muscles and sore limbs, the stopwatch had long since gone off. Rodney picked it up as they left, finding the display oddly appropriate. It was blinking the numbers 0.00—reset to the very beginning.