A/N: The prompt on the last hoodie_time comment-fic meme, by crowley_gal, was far more general, so it's rbmi_fan's fault for suggesting Rodney. Set before the epilogue to "For Love Is Strong as Death," during the Winchesters' first months in Atlantis. (Yes, I do know what "for the nonce" means; it does make sense in context if you consider the source.)
Your Planet Is Weird
By San Antonio Rose
It was a clean break, Keller said. The leg itself would heal just fine in a month or so, possibly less given Dean's unique physiology as a vessel and former Tok'ra; if he had fallen in Atlantis, he'd be on desk duty already, maybe poking around in Zelenka's lab or something. But given that he'd fallen down a flight of stairs in one of Michael's labs and had gotten scraped up as well as breaking his leg, isolation was mandatory... just to make sure he wasn't going to turn into a bug or a hive ship or come down with Second Childhood or anything like that. His initial scans and bloodwork had come back clean, but the hive ship spores hadn't turned up for close to a month, so better safe than sorry.
Dean understood. Really. He was just bored out of his tree—bored enough to consider actually doing some research in the Atlantis database to see whether the Ancients had any lore about Pegasus monsters of a more supernatural order than Wraith.
And then McKay had to go and slice his arm open in the same lab. So of course Beckett insisted on putting McKay in the same isolation room as Dean.
"Carson, are you nuts?" McKay objected as Beckett and Ronon wheeled him into the isolation room. "Putting me in here with Mr. Demon Hunter? He'll probably try to hex me in my sleep!"
"I might," Dean shot back, "if I had anything to make a hex bag with. Now, a summoning ritual..."
"Oh, shut it, Rodney," Beckett snapped. "Else I'll have Ronon put the restraints on."
McKay looked up at his teammate. "You wouldn't... right? Right?"
Ronon shrugged an eyebrow. "'S up to Doc."
McKay huffed. "Oh, fine. Just, just... keep him on his side of the room, all right?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "Geez, McKay, you're worse than Sam. Like I don't know how to share a space. Hell, we lived in apartments smaller than this when we were kids."
McKay sent him a baleful glance and proceeded to pester Beckett some more.
Ronon wandered over to Dean's bedside. "Hey. How you holdin' up?"
Dean shrugged. "Bored. Actually finished my paperwork for once."
Ronon grinned. "Listen, McKay... he grows on you."
Dean raised a skeptical eyebrow—until Ronon leaned as close as he could get with the hazmat suit on and rumbled something quietly in the general direction of Dean's ear.
And suddenly Dean had a plan.
He started small. Refusing to play Prime/Not Prime and beating McKay handily at chess were almost low-hanging fruit when it came to repaying annoyance for annoyance, and they made good camouflage for the actual prank he had brewing. That gave him time to get both Lantea and Sammy fully on board. Had he not had a bum leg, he might have been able to pull it off by himself, but as it was, he couldn't exactly be Mr. Stealth.
The mysteriously moved objects, courtesy of Sam, began on Day 2. Cold spots began on Day 3. It took McKay until Day 4 to figure out, with Zelenka's help, that the cold spots were in fact localized. Days 5 and 6 consisted of McKay frantically trying to catch someone (namely Dean) in the act of manipulating the temperature controls and ignoring Dean's repeated remark that the temperature control governed the temperature of the whole room. Lantea, of course, was the actual culprit, but McKay refused to accept that possibility.
On Day 7, about the time the temperature around McKay's bed dropped enough for his breath to be visible, Dean thought he heard a distant snap just as McKay reached for his tablet stylus and instead grabbed hold of a baby garter snake. Dean looked up at the observation room just fast enough to catch a wink from Gabriel before the Trickster archangel disappeared. He tried not to laugh too hard as McKay screeched and bellowed for Beckett; he hadn't known Gabriel was in Pegasus and hadn't summoned him, but he did appreciate the twist.
"It's his fault!" McKay spluttered to Beckett, pointing at Dean, once the snake was safely on its way to the zoology lab. "He—he—called something!"
Beckett rolled his eyes and left.
Dean spread his hands. "McKay, do you see anything in this room that looks like I could use it for a summoning ritual?"
"How should I know?"
"You would know, trust me. They all require candles, chalked sigils, a silver bowl, and a mix of herbs, minimum."
McKay frowned. "Herbs? What kind of herbs?"
"Depends on what you're summoning."
And suddenly McKay's scientific curiosity was piqued. "Example?"
Dean shrugged and ran down the list of ingredients needed for summoning an angel.
"And do you mix these in a certain proportion?"
"Not usually. It's not that specific. The sigil and the summoning spell matter more; that's how you summon a particular angel rather than getting the first one who happens to hear. You draw the sigil, place the candles, put the bowl with the stuff in the middle, light the candles, say the spell, and drop a lit match in the bowl. Stuff goes whoosh, and when the flames die down, there's an angel standing in front of you."
"But what happens if you put in, say, basil instead of sage, or if you say a word wrong? Does it not work?"
"If you're lucky, it doesn't work. If you're not lucky, you summon something else you didn't want. If you're really not lucky, the thing you summon kills you, jumps your bones, or both."
"Or the mixture blows up on you?"
Dean laughed. "Yeah, it could blow up on you. It could turn you invisible, make you five years old, turn you into a frog. Anything could happen."
"Huh." McKay sat back and thought for a moment before grabbing his tablet—presumably to try to work out what chemical reactions were involved in the combustion chain.
Dean chuckled a little to himself and took advantage of McKay's distraction to finish writing a letter to Ben.
It wasn't until after breakfast on Day 8 that Dean began to wonder whether McKay's curiosity were an attempted return prank or whether he was seriously trying to figure out how summoning spells worked. That was when McKay started asking Dean for the ingredients used for other summoning rituals. Dean gave them to him warily and kept an eye on him for the rest of the day.
"This doesn't make sense," McKay finally complained toward the end of the day. "None of these combustion reactions bear any relation to each other, even if I account for silver catalysis. But logically, since I've got three data points, I ought to be able to tell whether I can put lamb's blood and chicken feet in a bowl with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme and summon an ascended Ancient or get turned into a frog."
Dean rolled his eyes. "It's magic, McKay. There is no logic to it."
"But there ought to be—" McKay broke off suddenly, going completely pale as he stared at his tablet.
Dean was on the alert at once. "What? What is it?"
"This... message just popped up..." McKay got up and brought the tablet over to show Dean:
Actually, the ritual you just described would summon a zhenniao, the Chinese poisonfeather bird. Unless you have a rhinoceros horn handy, that's a bad idea.
"I did not know that," Dean replied truthfully with a remarkably straight face. This was one of those times when he was actually glad Gabriel had a warped sense of humor.
McKay looked around nervously. "That's not the point, Winchester. Somebody's been listening. There's... there's something in here."
"Well, I didn't summon it, if that's what you're asking. And honestly, if it's sending you messages like that, it can't be all bad."
"That's supposed to make me feel better? The last time we got haunted, Elizabeth Weir uploaded her consciousness into the city's computers and caused the power to go haywire, massive discharge currents arcing all over the place. Damn near killed someone. And then when her Replicator buddies showed up, it did kill someone."
"Look, how many people have died in this city since you discovered it?"
"I dunno. A lot."
"How many Ancients died fighting the Wraith?"
"A... lot. I guess."
"Okay, so there's a good chance at least one of 'em ducked his Reaper. Wouldn't require any summoning on anyone's part."
"... Ducked his Reaper?"
"Yeah. It's a choice—usually. Go with the Reaper or stay and go vengeful. Then again, this bein' a different galaxy, there could be stuff out here that Earth doesn't have. Do Wraith even have souls?"
"Wait, so it—it couldn't be someone who just... died violently and got stuck?"
"Doesn't happen often. And usually when it does, there's something else at work, forcing the soul to stay put—some kind of spell or something."
"Oh." McKay looked around nervously again.
And there the matter rested until the next night, when Lantea manufactured another cold spot. McKay shivered and drew his blankets up over his shoulders, and Dean almost felt sorry for the guy. He would have felt sorrier had McKay not spent the day thinking aloud as he read reports from the various science teams, most of which offended his double-PhD sensibilities in some way or other.
"Carson?" McKay finally ventured.
Nothing materialized in response—Sam was still researching who the ghost should be, so they were a few days out from that phase yet—but his tablet chirped.
McKay picked it up with a frown. "'Sorry,'" he read aloud, "'original-flavor Carson's not here anymore. For the nonce, I'm nobody you know. And no, I'm not a Replicator.' What the..."
Gabriel must be even more bored than I am, Dean thought as he shifted and pulled his own blankets higher. "Night, McKay."
And he drifted off to McKay spluttering quietly, "I mean, 'for the nonce'? Who even talks like that anymore..."
Please tell me you have something, Dean pleaded in a heavily-encrypted email to Sam on Day 12. He's driving me crazy.
I've got a short list, Sam replied. It's got to be someone whose remains we could plausibly locate without Gabriel, though, which is making it hard.
Why the hell is Gabriel here, anyway?
"Figures," Dean muttered. Okay, send me your short list. I'm bored, too.
Christo, Sam replied but attached his list.
Ha ha. Dean glanced over the list and added, How about Chrysophylax?
That's Crispus Philoxenus, jerk.
Whatever. Where's he buried?
It took several minutes, but a reply came back—not from Sam, but from Teyla. Dean, I believe Crispus Philoxenus was buried on Athos; that name sounds familiar. The planet's been deserted long enough that a hypothetical away team could enter the Ancestral ruins there without attracting the Wraith's attention.
Dean allowed himself the smallest of smirks. Awesome. Thanks, Teyla.
"Heard you're having a little ghost problem," Sheppard drawled when the rest of the team came by to see McKay that afternoon.
McKay scoffed. "It's just cold spots," he replied; that seemed to be the new line of reasoning he'd grabbed hold of in the absence of further clearly paranormal events. "I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation."
"Keep telling yourself that, McKay," Dean chimed in, not looking up from what he was doing on his laptop.
McKay ignored him, of course. "There's no evidence that ghosts even exist, never mind being able to influence the natural world the way ascended Ancients can."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "No evidence, huh? Guess what happened to me in the Sandbox was just 'atmospheric phenomena,' then."
Ronon frowned. "Something happened when you were a kid?"
"Nah, it's—it's a nickname for Afghanistan."
"Oh." Ronon didn't look any less confused, but he took his cue anyway. "What happened in Afghanistan?"
Sheppard grinned. "No lie, there I was, thirty clicks out from Kandahar..."
As Sheppard got into telling his ghost story—which might have had some truth to it; Dean would have to ask him later—and as the rest of his team listened with varying levels of intrigue, Dean put the last touches on the program Sam had been helping him with. And at precisely the most suspenseful moment, the temperature on McKay's side of the room dropped, and the hologram of a male Ancient with dark curly hair appeared at McKay's bedside, 'listening' as intently as was everyone else. Sheppard caught sight of the figure, did a very convincing double-take, and stopped the story.
"What?" McKay demanded. "What ha—" The question died on his lips as he glanced over and saw the hologram, which promptly fritzed and vanished. McKay went pale. "J-John? Did—did you—"
"Yeah," Sheppard replied quietly. "Yeah, I saw it."
"Saw what?" Ronon asked as he and Teyla turned to look at the now-vacant space.
"The ghost. Looked like an Ancient—but not... not a death echo, like we got with the whales." Sheppard paused. "He was listening to me."
Teyla shivered. "Dean? Did you see anything?"
Dean deliberately avoided glancing at McKay. "The curly-haired guy in the white suit? Yeah. Looked like a pretty standard ghost to me."
"A white suit? You mean he was an Ancestor?"
"The hell should I know, Teyla? I've never seen any. Didn't look like Earth clothes, though."
Ronon frowned. "Yeah, that's an Ancestor—but why didn't Teyla and I see it?"
Dean shrugged. "It was only visible for a few seconds. Takes a lot of energy for a ghost to manifest visibly for any length of time. Could be the spirit's not all that strong."
Just then, McKay's tablet pinged. He picked it up warily and read, "'Tell Sheppard to finish the story; he was just getting to the good part.' What..."
Dean had to clamp a hand over his mouth and look back down at his laptop to keep from laughing or from triggering giggles in any of the other three co-conspirators.
The apparitions ratcheted up slowly over the next week, with good old Crispus Philoxenus popping up just about the time McKay had himself convinced that he was just seeing things and that his teammates were pulling his leg. Sam and Gabriel each contributed touches of realism, and Lantea kept McKay from working out what was really going on. By the time Crispus, courtesy of Gabriel, got around to criticizing McKay's work, McKay was sufficiently creeped out to beg Dean to do something.
The look on Beckett's face when he came in for the daily checkup and found McKay's bed surrounded by a salt circle was priceless.
"You sure you're not bein' a bit too hard on him?" Beckett whispered to Dean as he ran a scan.
"Hell, Doc, I can't exactly Superglue his beer to his hand right now," Dean whispered back. "But as hunters' pranks on civilians go, this one's pretty mild. Nobody can get hurt; nothing's been summoned; and hey, at least the only thing that's changed form was the stylus. Trust me, if we wanted him to go crazy, we'd let Gabriel loose on him."
"Ask Sam about Broward County. No, on second thought, don't. He still has nightmares about that."
Beckett's eyebrows rose, but he let the matter drop.
"Can't you get rid of it?" McKay whined when Sam stopped by that afternoon after another brief Crispus sighting.
Sam sighed. "It's not that simple, McKay. To get rid of a ghost, you have to locate either the person's remains or the item to which the spirit's tied, salt it, and burn it. Thousands of Ancients have died in this city. Finding the right one based on that physical description is taking a lot of research."
"—Is taking? You mean you've already started?"
"Of course. It's a hunt. This is what we do."
"We started as soon as the first cold spots showed up. But even with two of us searching, we can't be sure we've got the right guy."
"Are you close? Can I help?"
Sam shrugged. "We've got a short list. If you want something to do..."
"Anything. Just..." McKay swallowed hard, and for the first time Dean recognized that his highly annoying roommate was genuinely afraid, even though the 'ghost' hadn't done anything truly scary yet. "Just get rid of it. Please?"
Sam looked over at Dean, who nodded, and turned back to McKay. "Sure. You know your way around the database better than we do; maybe you can find something we've missed."
McKay shrugged. "Wouldn't surprise me." But now Dean could hear his false bravado for what it was.
He was almost sorry it wasn't a real hunt that they could let McKay help with. But then again, as he'd told Beckett, this way no one would get hurt.
Not even Crispus Philoxenus, whoever he was.
True to his word, Sam sent McKay the short list later that afternoon. McKay spent an hour or so in brow-furrowing concentrated searching before a "Huh" escaped him.
"What?" Dean asked, genuinely curious.
McKay looked up. "I don't know why it didn't register before, but—did you know that Ancient is basically a primitive form of Latin?"
"Think I'd heard that, yeah."
"This one name, Crispus Philoxenus... Crispus is Latin for 'curly-haired.' I wonder..." McKay spent several minutes more in quiet searching. "Huh."
"Could be our guy. He worked on a project that's similar to the one Michael was exploring in that lab, which could explain why he's turned up all of a sudden. Apparently he was killed offworld—on Athos, looks like; can't tell how—but the record makes a special note of how devoted he was to his work. Now, you said a soul that ducks its Reaper can be bound to a specific object?"
"So what if he died offworld but his research was carried back to Atlantis? Would we have to locate the data crystal?"
Dean scratched his head. "Honestly, the ghost doesn't seem all that strong. My guess is, we destroy the remains, he'll be gone. If that doesn't work, though, then yeah, we'd probably have to find the crystal—or worst case, erase the data from the database."
The room suddenly got icy cold, and a scowling Crispus flickered into view a couple of times before McKay's tablet pinged.
As McKay picked up his tablet and cursed quietly, Dean thought in the general direction of the observation room, Gabriel, this had better be your idea of stage management. "What's it say?" he asked aloud.
"'No, you won't destroy my research,'" McKay read in almost a monotone. "'I won't let you.'" He looked up, clearly terrified. "Dean..."
"You're okay," Dean replied, grabbing his laptop. "As long as you're inside that salt line, he can't hurt you. We'll get Sammy clearance to go to Athos right away."
"But what if... if..."
"You are not getting killed on my watch, McKay." Dean spared a glance upward at the observation room and, to his great relief, saw Gabriel giving him a thumbs-up. Then he fired off an email to the co-conspirators to initiate the final stage, with the caveat to keep it as realistic as possible; the game was moving from prank to simulation.
Dean had never wanted to be the jock who beat up on the nerds just because they were nerdy. He'd gotten too close to that here. And McKay had gone from calling him "Winchester" to calling him "Dean," much as he'd shifted from "Sheppard" to "John" as soon as he'd first felt truly afraid of ol' Crispus. Dean was taking that as a mark of a kind of trust he couldn't jeopardize for the sake of a joke.
And then McKay took him completely by surprise by asking, "But what about you? You're the hunter. What if..."
It took Dean a second to realize that he hadn't factored in the need for weaponry of his own. In that same amount of time, he glanced around and chanced to see the salt shaker that had been brought in with the dinner tray that hadn't yet been collected. "Well, this ain't a shotgun," he replied, reaching for it, "but it'll do. Hit a ghost with salt, it takes a while for it to show up again." He unscrewed the top and put it back on the tray, mentally thanking whoever had seen to it that he'd gotten a shaker instead of salt packets—probably Gabriel, since he seemed to have taken over this charade.
McKay licked his lips. "You sure that's enough?"
"Gonna have to be. The rest is up to Sam and Teyla."
McKay nodded. "Y'know, for all the big deal the Ancients made about ascension and how you have to 'release your burden,' I never thought one could be this caught up in his research. That's... that's kind of sobering."
"Yeah," Dean replied for lack of anything better to say.
They didn't have radios in the isolation room, so the final phase played out mostly by email, apart from Sam, Sheppard, and Teyla stopping by the observation room in offworld gear to wave at McKay and show him a gas can and a bag of rock salt. Crispus flickered in and out for the next half hour, seeming to pace angrily but not trying to attack either of them. That gave Dean time to program in the final variables while the hypothetical away team supposedly made their way to the ruins on Athos and located Crispus' grave.
Then, at his mental command, the temperature in the room dropped, and Crispus appeared in the middle of the room. He rushed at McKay, who flinched, but halted at the salt line, which visibly heartened McKay.
Call it off! the hologram mouthed. CALL IT OFF!
"Wh-what?" McKay stammered. "Call what off?"
"HEY!" Dean yelled, and the hologram turned. "You want to go vengeful on someone? Right here! That guy diggin' up your bones? That's my brother!"
Crispus' face twisted into a silent shriek of rage, and he rushed Dean's bed. Dean flung salt toward the hologram, which 'dispersed' into smoke at just the right moment so McKay couldn't catch any pixelation when the salt passed through the image.
McKay gawped. "I can't believe that worked!"
Dean looked around the room cautiously. "C'mon, Sammy, light 'er up already..."
Crispus had appeared out of nowhere from the direction Dean wasn't looking, almost like a real ghost, and the bed moved as he lunged at Dean. But Dean wasn't a hunter for nothing, and another toss of the salt shaker 'dispersed' the hologram again.
"You okay?" McKay asked breathlessly.
Crispus flickered into view once more, but this time he got no more than two steps toward Dean's bed before being engulfed by flames. The 'salt and burn' was over.
McKay stared open-mouthed for a long moment. "Is... is that it? Is he gone?"
Dean nodded. "Yeah. Looks like he was tied to his bones after all."
"Huh. That... that was actually kind of cool." McKay's mouth quirked up in a crooked smile.
Dean couldn't help grinning back.
"It went up in flames?" Ronon asked incredulously the next day as Dean was waiting for Keller to come take his cast off so he could finally leave isolation.
McKay nodded. "Yeah, must have been right when Sam and Teyla burned his bones. It was like something out of the movies, I swear."
Ronon turned to Dean. "And you used to do this for a living?"
"Not much of a living," Dean replied with a shrug, "but yeah. Saving people, hunting things. The family business."
Ronon shook his head. "Man, your planet is weird."
"Okay," Keller chirped as she walked into the isolation room. "Grab your crutches, Dean, and let's go get that cast off."
"Yes, ma'am," Dean replied with a wink and a mock salute.
Ronon smiled and handed Dean his crutches. "What'd I tell ya?" he rumbled quietly.
"You were right," Dean whispered back as he stood. "He grows on you."
Ronon's smile grew into a grin, and he went back to McKay's bedside.
"Hey, Winchester?" McKay called as Dean started for the door.
Dean looked back. "Yeah, McKay?"
McKay smiled. "Thanks."
Dean smiled back. "Any time, dude. Any time."