"Now let's see," Rodney said, rubbing his hands in front of the display. "What do we have here?"
The Leader of Hlexwa looked a little nervous, which made John's hand slide closer to his holster. Not that there was anything wrong; they were among friends. Good friends, who ought to be damn grateful for the way they'd all worked together to avoid a tear in the fabric of space-time or whatever it was they'd just managed to do.
But it bugged him that she was nervous.
"Please do not touch anything," the Leader said. "We have been unable to determine what any of these devices do."
Rodney bent closer to the pedestal where a group of odd-shaped objects were ceremonially arranged. "That, my friend," he said, "is because you cannot read Ancient. And while you and your people have a surprisingly adequate grasp of theoretical physics, there is a certain knowledge base required to recognize devices such as these."
"Oh," the Leader said, brightening. "You can tell us what they are?"
"This one," Rodney said, pointing dismissively, "is a graviton flow regulator. A preliminary model, actually, so I'm afraid it's worthless. Now this one is interesting; it appears to be an Ancient stun weapon." He reached for it, and the Leader took a quick step backward, nearly bumping into John. "Nonoperational, I'm afraid," Rodney added, holding it up. "You can see the power crystal is missing."
"Ah, yes, I see," the Leader said, although from the look on her face she was regretting her invitation to show Rodney her secret artifacts. From beside him, John heard Ronon stifle a yawn.
"Now this, however, is not something I've seen before," Rodney said, examining the curved golden band on the far right of the display. "You can see the writing across the bottom here. It says, 'To find true happiness, one must release one's worries.' There, you see? Nothing to be afraid of. It's an Ancient stress-ball." He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. The underside was covered in a raised geometric pattern. "Hmmm, do you think it does a temple massage?"
"McKay," John said, and the Leader held up her hands and said, "Please do not—"
But it was too late. Rodney had already lifted the thing to his forehead. "Huh," he said, and then his whole body jerked.
"Rodney!" John shouted, and jumped forward to grab him by the shoulders, but Rodney just gave him a beatific smile and slowly lowered the device.
"Wow," Rodney said. "That was amazing."
John let go of Rodney's shoulders and stepped back, feeling like an idiot. Of course Rodney was right; it was just some kind of stress-buster. "Great," he said, possibly a bit more snidely than necessary. "Glad it made you happy."
Rodney's gaze, which had been wandering around the room, came back to meet John's, and his smile diminished. "I'm sorry," he said. "Do I know you?"
"Oh, very funny," John said, and Ronon stepped up behind him.
"You don't know who we are?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Ronon," Rodney said with a roll of his eyes. Then he turned back to John and stuck out his hand. "Dr. Rodney McKay."
"Wait," John said, because this had to be a joke, didn't it? "You know Ronon, but you don't know me? What the hell did that thing do to you?"
"I came here with Ronon and Teyla," Rodney said with a little frown. "You must be new."
"Oh, dear," the Leader of Hlexwa said faintly.
"Rodney," Teyla said, stepping up to put a hand on his arm. "You know John. You have known him longer than either myself or Ronon."
"That's perfectly impossible," Rodney said with a twitch of his chin. "I've never seen this man before in my life. Although he's apparently from Atlantis," he added, squinting at John's uniform, and then his hair. "Don't tell me. An anthropologist?"
John put his hands on his hips, because this was getting weirder by the minute. "Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," he said. "United States Air Force. Ring any bells?"
"Really?" Rodney said, and something in John's gut went cold, because drama award or no, he'd never seen Rodney pull off a deception this elaborate. "Are you sure? That hair's not regulation."
"Yes, I'm sure," John said, and then something inside him snapped. He whirled to face the Leader, his hand on the butt of his weapon. "Okay, what the hell do you know about this, and why didn't you warn him what it would do?"
The Leader pulled herself up to her full height. "As we told Dr. McKay, we know nothing of the operation of these devices. We only know that they may have the potential to do great harm. That is why I told him not to touch them."
"Right," John said, because damn it, she had warned Rodney. He just hadn't listened. "Okay, we're going to need to take the device with us."
"You may have it," the Leader said. "I only ask that you please refrain from using it on anyone else."
"No chance of that," John said. "Can we get a bag or something to put it in so no one touches it?"
From another corner of the room, a Hlexwan produced a lined metal case, and then brought it over to Rodney, who was still holding the golden band.
"Oh, hey, look at this," Rodney said, still bizarrely unconcerned. "It says on the back, 'To release unpleasant memories.'"
"Unpleasant memories?" John growled. "What the hell?"
But Teyla stepped between them. "Rodney, please put the device in the case now," she said, and John could hear the steel in her voice.
"We're taking it with us," John said, "so you can figure out how to reverse the effect."
"Do you think that's really necessary?" Rodney said, and John's stomach twisted into a knot. But it wasn't personal. It couldn't be. Rodney didn't know what he'd forgotten. And the unpleasant thing couldn't mean what it sounded like. It just couldn't. "Although it might be interesting to see exactly how it works," Rodney added.
"I hope that you can find a way to restore him," the Leader said. "I fear that it may be impossible."
"Yes, well," Rodney broke in, his usual smug self, and how was that possible when he was injured? Damaged. God. "As I said, our knowledge of Ancient technology is quite extensive. I give us a week, tops, before we understand it so well we can write our own user manual."
"Fine," John said, and put a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "But we can't do that until we get home." He turned back to the leader. "Sorry to cut and run on you, but this is a medical emergency."
"Yes, of course, we understand," the Leader said. "And we thank you again for your assistance."
"No problem," John said, and manhandled Rodney out the door.
The jumper was parked just outside, and apparently Rodney remembered it just fine, because he settled right in to the seat behind John. Which begged the question of who he remembered flying the damn thing, but John wasn't about to poke at that right now. He concentrated on getting the jumper in the air and moving toward the gate.
"Are you in any pain?" he heard Teyla's voice, soft behind him.
"What?" Rodney said. "Oh, no, not at all. I feel great. Better than I've felt in ages, although I'm not exactly sure . . . huh. I wonder why I was so cranky?"
The words hit like a sucker punch, because John hadn't even . . . it was one thing to be told this was about "unpleasant memories" but to hear that Rodney was actually happier not knowing him . . .
What the hell had he ever done to Rodney? They were friends, damn it. Or at least he'd thought they were.
"And you remember nothing of Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla said.
"Are you sure I actually knew him? Because I'm finding it hard to believe I could forget a whole person."
"Perhaps you have forgotten more than just John," Teyla suggested. "Do you remember Dr. Keller? Or Dr. Zelenka?"
"Of course," Rodney said. "How could I possibly forget either of them? They're far too important to me."
John leaned forward over the controls and stared out the windshield. He knew Rodney didn't know what he was saying, but Jesus fucking Christ.
"Mr. Woolsey?" Teyla was saying. "Colonel Carter?"
"Yes and yes," Rodney said, and now he was starting to get cranky. "Look, I don't see what any of this has to do with Sherwood."
"You want me to dial?" Ronon asked from the shotgun seat, and shit, they were almost on top of the gate already.
John sucked air and eased up on the V and managed a "yeah." And then Ronon got it punched in, and they were through the gate and somehow they were going to be able to fix this.
The faster the goddamned better.
Ronon and Teyla staked out the waiting area in the infirmary, but after fifteen minutes, John had had enough.
"It's not like he's going to give a damn whether I'm here or not," he said, and took off, ignoring Ronon's grumble and Teyla's sympathetic murmur.
He ended up on the Southwest Pier, dangling his feet over the thirty-foot drop to the water. He wanted a beer — a six pack, more like it — but he didn't want to go back to his room to get it, and anyway, it would only remind him of Rodney.
Not that he was thinking about Rodney. It was all just a mistake, anyway, a goddamned stupid fuck up, and Rodney or Radek would figure out how to fix it and everything would be fine. Rodney wasn't really happier having forgotten him. He just seemed that way because . . . because of something, and they'd figure that out, too.
It wasn't anything John had done. He and Rodney got along just fine. And Rodney didn't, Rodney wouldn't . . . honestly, Rodney wasn't a good enough actor to pull off pretending to be friends when they really weren't.
Okay, sure, Rodney was always kind of competitive, but that was just how he was. He couldn't resent all the times John had beat him at chess or remote control racing. He couldn't honestly care about his sister comparing their looks, because it wasn't like he had any trouble getting the girl. Keeping the girl was another story, but hell, John had never managed to keep the girl, himself, so it wasn't like Rodney would come off badly on that measure. His relationship with Jennifer had lasted nearly as long as John's marriage, and the breakup had been a lot less acrimonious, at least from what John had seen.
Of course, Rodney didn't know about Nancy, not unless Ronon had talked. John had been careful to keep her away from anything directly related to Atlantis, even when they'd been on Earth. He'd actually seen her twice, and it had been surprisingly not awful, so maybe she'd managed to work through her resentment now that she'd said her piece. Or maybe it was just that he hadn't asked her to abuse her security clearance again. Well, not too much.
But he hadn't told Rodney about that. It wasn't personal; hell, he didn't tell anyone about that shit. And anyway, Rodney couldn't possibly resent him for the stuff he didn't know; it had to be something he did know, something John had done, and the worst part about it was that it meant Rodney — the same Rodney who couldn't fool anyone less gullible than Woolsey — had been keeping something from him. Something big, something really fucking big, and why hadn't he just complained if he had a grievance?
It wasn't like he didn't know how.
John felt the footsteps as a vibration in the metal deck long before he heard them, but he didn't look up. If someone wanted to come play shrink on him, they could figure out where to stick it. But when the body settled down next to him, long legs dangling fearlessly over the water, it was Ronon.
"Hey," John said, and took the beer Ronon held out. It was a Coors, which Rodney hated, and John drained a third of it in a few quick gulps.
"It's not just you," Ronon said, taking a swig of his own beer. "He forgot some other stuff, too."
"Oh yeah?" John said, and his voice sounded embarrassingly hopeful.
"Yeah," Ronon said. "He can't remember a thing about the project he was working on, that computer virus thing."
"Wait," John said. "You mean the one where Todd told him he'd personally feed on him if he ever uploaded it to a hive ship?"
"Yeah," Ronon said. "That one."
"Great," John said. Because that made him feel so much better.
Ronon shrugged and took another gulp of beer. "Maybe it's not personal," he offered after a few minutes.
John stared out over the water and didn't answer that, because apparently he was the equivalent of a Wraith feeding, so who the fuck cared if it was personal?
"Could've been just what he was thinking about," Ronon said.
John took a swallow of his beer and didn't look at Ronon's face, because that would be nice to believe. Real nice, if only it were remotely possible. "He looked happy," he said finally, and it came out like metal grating over stone. "After it zapped his brain. He looked fucking happy."
Ronon grunted and leaned back on his hands. "He's pretty cranky now."
"Oh yeah?" And damn it, that was another stupid, inappropriate surge of hope.
"Yeah. He finally figured out he's missing something, and he's pissed."
"I'm not going to go see him," John said, because the thought made his stomach turn over.
"Okay," Ronon said, like it was easy to say, like he didn't blame John for anything, and that helped, a little. "You want another beer?"
"Yeah," John said, and gulped the rest of the one he had.
Maybe if he drank enough, he'd go numb.
Rodney had been released from the infirmary by morning. John knew, because he heard his voice coming from the mess and did an about-face. He'd meant to go for a pre-breakfast run, anyway.
Debriefing was scheduled for ten o'clock, and there was no way to avoid it, but Rodney was late, so John managed to snag a seat between Teyla and Woolsey. Woolsey lifted both eyebrows at him, but John wasn't confessing to anything, and anyway, he had a coffee cup to hide behind. He only wished he'd had an excuse to bring a laptop, but that would have been painfully obvious.
Rodney looked . . . okay, Ronon was right. A hell of a lot more cranky than yesterday. Sounded more cranky, too.
John didn't know if that made him feel better, or worse.
"Seriously," Rodney said, "this is a ridiculous waste of my time. I should be helping Zelenka analyze the device so we can, I don't know, fix me. It's not like I'm going to be any use to you brain-damaged. None of us even know if my memories are accurate." His gaze slid across John, then jerked away.
"Let's establish what you do remember," Woolsey said, implacable as ever. "You can get back to your work as soon as you're done."
"Fine, whatever," Rodney said, and so John had to relive it all in excruciating detail, how Rodney had helped save the Hlexwan solar system, how the Leader had shown him the devices and he'd tried one out, and how he'd felt just fine, afterward, until he'd realized it had damaged his brain, and did Woolsey know he was deathly allergic to citrus? Because Teyla had snatched a glass of orange juice off his tray this morning and Rodney had thought she was kidding until he'd looked up his medical records.
"Jesus, McKay," John said without even thinking, and Rodney turned to look at him.
"And can someone please tell me why I can't remember the colonel, here?" he said. "The deadly allergy and the threat of Wraith feeding, I can understand, but I've been going through mission reports, and quite frankly, I haven't found anything that makes sense. Did we just not get along? Or was it something deeper? Because if there's an incident I've forgotten, I need to know about it, and you're not protecting anyone by refusing to talk about it."
"We're friends," John said, his throat so dry he could barely spit the words out. "There was no goddamned incident."
"I can think of no reason why you cannot remember Colonel Sheppard," Teyla added. "When you spoke together yesterday, I sensed nothing out of the ordinary in your banter."
"Banter?" Rodney said, and glanced from Teyla to John and back again.
"The colonel was exhorting you to work faster," she said. "You told him that if he wanted to do the 'excruciatingly complex calculations' himself, he could go right ahead."
"It's not like it sounds," John said, although there was no way to explain it to a Rodney who didn't know him. "It's just a . . . thing we do."
"I see," Rodney said, but his lips were pressed tight together, like he was drawing his own conclusions. "Was that all?"
"I believe you were discussing the relative merits of two persons named Magneto and Dr. Doom," Teyla said. "It appeared to be only tangentially related to the problem at hand."
"That was before," John said stiffly. "It wasn't life or death then."
"Of course not," Rodney said, and gave him another narrow-eyed look.
"Is there anything else?" John asked Woolsey, and yeah, it sounded as desperate as it was. "Or can McKay get back to work?"
"I think that will do for now," Woolsey said. "Dr. McKay, please keep me updated on your progress."
"You'll be the first to know. Well, actually, I'll be the first to know, but you're certainly high on the list," Rodney said, and pushed his chair back.
John stood to go, but Woolsey put a hand on his sleeve. "Not you, Colonel," he said. "I'd like a word with you. Off the record, if need be."
So much for making an escape. John waited while everyone else filed out and Rodney shot him a sideways glance on the way out the door. And then everyone was gone and he had to face Woolsey, who was hemming and shifting on his feet and crap, this was not going to be fun.
"I realize this is a delicate situation," Woolsey began, "but I need to know what is going on here. Has something happened between you and Dr. McKay that would lead him to want to forget about you? Because I don't know if you've noticed this, but every other thing he's forgotten has been a source of extreme stress."
"There was no incident," John growled. "I didn't do a damn thing to him." And if anyone else suggested he had, he was going to hit them. "Maybe he just associates me with stress because I'm his team leader." It was a shot in the dark, but right now he needed anything to get Woolsey off his back.
"That's true," Woolsey mused. "You are the one responsible for leading him into danger."
"Yeah," John said, trying not to push too hard, because it was apparently the sort of logic that made sense to Woolsey. "Which is why I'm taking him off the team. Until he gets his memory back."
Woolsey straightened, tugging his uniform jacket down. "You know I'm not one to overstep the bounds of my leadership role, Colonel, but I would strongly advise you not do that."
"What?" John bit back a couple of choice words. "You want me to take an injured man through the gate?"
"Dr. Keller says he is neither physically nor mentally impaired, and there is no ongoing source of damage. All things considered, his memory lapse is really quite minor. I know what you're thinking, but this is nothing like that parasite that infected his brain."
John winced, because God, he hadn't been thinking that. He'd been too caught up in the current disaster. "What if he's forgotten something important, something we forgot to test him for? That could be a big problem in the field."
"Yes, well, we'll have to rely on you and the rest of your team to head off any such contingencies. I don't want our first team hamstrung, Colonel, and Dr. McKay is the best man for the job."
"Never said he wasn't."
"Well, then, that's settled. See you tomorrow morning at the staff meeting." And before John could formulate a proper protest, Woolsey was out the door.
John picked up his coffee cup and followed more slowly. It wasn't that he didn't want Rodney around — even missing random bits of his memory, he was bound to be vital to any number of emergencies. But having Rodney on missions would mean having to deal with Rodney, and John's plan of avoidance, avoidance, avoidance would go right out the window.
And what the hell was Rodney's problem, anyway? How did John qualify as a "source of extreme stress"? That was so fucked up it didn't even make sense. They played chess together. They drank beer together. They were goddamned buddies, or at least John had thought they were, until Rodney went and fucked everything up and forgot him.
"Sir?" he heard a voice say, and only then realized he'd slammed his fist into the wall.
"Sergeant," he said to Banks, who had the grace not to look curious.
"You might want to get that looked at," she said matter-of-factly, and yeah, okay, his knuckles were bleeding a little.
"It's fine," John said, and brushed past Banks to escape down the stairs to the gateroom floor.
The three band-aids he'd plastered across his knuckles weren't really noticeable. Certainly not enough to comment on.
"What happened to you?" Ronon asked when they met outside the mess for lunch.
"Nothing," John said, and slid his hand into his pocket. "Minor accident."
"Okay," Ronon said, which was what John liked about him, that he didn't pry or make a fuss about things. John followed him into the service area. He was concentrating on the selection — sandwiches or sandwiches — so he didn't notice if anyone else was in the line ahead of him.
He was good. He was fine. He didn't care if he saw . . . crap.
Rodney was just sitting down with Teyla, right in the middle of the room. Right where it would be impossible to avoid them.
And Ronon was already leading the way to a table — by the wall, thank God. John nodded vaguely at Teyla as he walked by, and pretended he didn't see her assessing gaze in return. He didn't look at Rodney, but Rodney wasn't looking at him, either, which he knew because, right. Not looking.
John managed to sit with his back to Rodney. Not that it helped much, because now he didn't know if Rodney was looking at him.
Ronon set to eating with his usual single-minded intensity — he had four sandwiches to get through — and that was another thing John liked about him. A guy could have a little peace and quiet in his presence.
"You should talk to Teyla," Ronon said.
Or not. "I'm fine."
Ronon lifted his head and looked John up and down, slowly and deliberately. "You don't look fine," he said, and who the hell had given him a degree in psychology?
"Look," John said. "McKay and Zelenka are going to figure the damn thing out and then everything will be back to normal."
Ronon frowned. "What if they can't?"
"McKay can fix anything," John said.
Ronon bit off half of one of his sandwiches and chewed thoughtfully. "Talk to Teyla."
"I told you, I'm fine," John said, because he could be as stubborn as anyone.
"I could tell the doc you need a psych evaluation."
"Okay, fine," John said, because that was playing dirty, but he knew when he was licked. "I'll talk to her later."
"Good," Ronon said, and gave him a look that said he was going to follow up on that.
Okay, so maybe Ronon could give him a run for his money on the stubbornness thing.
Avoiding Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon was a hell of a lot harder than avoiding Rodney alone, but John was up for the challenge. He had some paperwork to do, and there were a bunch of new gene carriers on the base who needed practical experience flying jumpers. And if some of them were surprised to be getting private lessons from their military commander, well, that wasn't John's problem.
He'd just gotten back from a lesson when his radio buzzed in his ear. "Colonel Sheppard to the gate room." It was Sergeant Banks, in a tone that said it was an emergency.
"On my way," John said, and the rush of adrenaline carried him down the stairs at double time.
Ronon and Teyla were just arriving, and Rodney was already there.
"We have a situation, sir," Banks said, and Rodney broke in, "Yeah, that's one way of putting it. Clark and Egglund just managed to blow up building G on the south pier."
"Holy crap," John said, and leaned in to look at the screen. For once Rodney wasn't exaggerating — the base of the twelve-story, dome-roofed building was mostly blown away, the upper floors still partially intact, supported by a few remaining columns like a spindly, lopsided mushroom. "How is that still standing?"
"I have no idea," Rodney said.
"Sir, Clark and Egglund are dead, but there are three scientists trapped on one of the upper floors. We need to move quickly; there's no telling how long it's going to hold."
Right. Action. "Sergeant, evacuate the area. Make it the whole pier, just to be safe. Teyla, Ronon, McKay, you're with me." And he turned toward the stairs that led back up to the jumper bay.
"Wait, wait, wait, hold on a second," Rodney said, and John whirled.
Jesus, how had he forgotten?
Rodney's eyes were wide. "Are you crazy? You can't take a jumper in there! It's going to fall any second."
"Which is why we're going now," John said. "Not ten minutes from now. So get a move on!"
"Look, I'm sure I'm not vital to this mission," Rodney said. "You have Ronon and Teyla, what do you need me for?"
"You're team, McKay," John said, and fuck, he should have defied Woolsey and insisted on replacing Rodney, because then he would already have Zelenka here.
"Yes, yes," Rodney said, "but I'm sure someone else could do the job far more effectively. In this particular case."
John stepped into Rodney's space, using every advantage of height and glower he possessed. "Yes, it's going to fall. That's why I need someone with me who can turn the jumper's cloak into a shield when it does. You remember how to do that?"
Rodney shifted on his feet. "Well, yes, but—"
"Dr. McKay," Woolsey said, arriving out of breath from the stairs, "we need you with Colonel Sheppard's team now. We have reason to believe that time is critical."
Rodney looked from Woolsey to John with darting, terrified eyes, and okay, John got it. Rodney didn't remember him, so he didn't remember all of the times they'd played the odds together and won.
"C'mon," John said more gently, with a hand on Rodney's arm. "We do this all the time."
"We do?" Rodney said, but when John turned to go, he followed.
The building looked worse from the jumper, twisted and torn, the top-heavy upper floors visibly swaying in the wind.
"Leveque, Nakalinzi, Marr, do you copy?"
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Nakalinzi," a woman's voice came back. "I have Dr. Marr and Dr. Leveque here with me."
John brought up the life signs array and saw them — three glowing dots just above the gaping hole. "I've got you on my screen," he said. "We're going to get you out of there."
"Just hurry," Nakalinzi said. "We don't know how much longer this is going to hold."
"Can you get to a window?" John said. "If you can break it, we can pick you up in the jumper."
"I don't think so," Nakalinzi said. "Every time we move, the floor shakes so badly we're afraid it's going to go."
Right, of course they weren't going to be able to do this the easy way. "Can you find a place where we can reach you, then?" John asked. "'Cause we can't exactly beam you out."
"We're not far from where the inner wall collapsed in the explosion," Nakalinzi said. "The floor ends less than twenty feet from us."
That was good enough. "Okay, hang on," John said. "We're coming in to get you." He swung the jumper to the south to get a better view. "McKay, I need to be able to switch on the shield at a moment's notice. Ronon, Teyla, I'm going to back up to that section and open the hatch. I need you both in the rear compartment."
"This is insane," Rodney said. "Do you really think you have the reflexes to react in time if it starts to fall? You can't take us in there."
"Watch me," John said, and eased the jumper into the hole. The exposed ends of the remaining floors were a jumble of slagged metal and broken tile, but John followed the indication of the life signs detector, easing up past the layers of wreckage, then up some more, and there, that was it, the broken edge of the floor where the scientists were trapped.
"Dr. Nakalinzi, I'm going to need the three of you to get to the jumper."
"We can see you," Nakalinzi said, and then another voice cut in. "We can't make it, Colonel. We can feel the floor tipping if we take more than a couple of steps."
"You can do it," John said. "Just run. Ronon, Teyla, you ready for them?"
"We are ready," Teyla said.
"This is such a bad plan," Rodney said, and John didn't need to look to know that he had broken into a panicked sweat.
"Just be ready with that shield," John said.
There was a pounding of feet, and the ominous groan of metal.
"Take my hand!" Teyla shouted, and there were grunts from Ronon. John turned in time to see Teyla pull the last scientist into the rear of the jumper just as the floor beneath him gave way.
"Now, Rodney!" John barked, and hit the control to close the hatch.
"Oh, God, oh, God," Rodney muttered, and John dove as the building came down around them. "There!" Rodney shouted, and it was in time, Jesus, barely — the jumper was intact, but now the weight of a buckled support beam was pressing on the shield, and okay, okay, John could work with that.
"What the hell are you doing?" Rodney said. "Get us out of here!"
"I'm letting it down easy," John said, and it was working. The jumper sank under the weight of the beam, and the floors above began to shift and crumble. "So it doesn't do structural damage to the pier."
"The shield's not going to hold," Rodney said. "You're using too much power!"
"Just another couple of seconds," John grated between his teeth, and then there was metal and stone and composite raining down around them and he was gunning for the last strip of daylight as the whole building gave way.
"I can't believe we made it," Rodney said, as they cleared the dust. "I can't believe you cut it that close. Seriously, do you have some kind of a death wish? And if you do, could you leave me out of it next time?"
"You folks okay back there?" John asked, pointedly ignoring that, and the three scientists nodded and babbled their thanks. "Good," John said, and turned the jumper in a smooth arc to survey the damage. The building was a heap of rubble, but the pier looked okay from the air.
"Sheppard to the control room," John said, still far too aware of Rodney's gaze boring into the back of his head. "What's the status of the South Pier?"
"The pier itself appears to be intact," Zelenka's voice replied. "There are no signs of any structural damage or leaks."
"Cool," John said, and headed for the jumper bay. He didn't look at Rodney again until the jumper was powered down.
"Seriously," Rodney said, his eyes still wide, "Are you always like this?"
John lifted a shoulder. "Pretty much."
Teyla turned back from where she was done handing off the three scientists to a medical team. "It is as I was telling you," she said to Rodney. "John can be . . . quite intense when there are lives at stake."
"Yeah, I noticed," Rodney said sourly, and John turned away, his gut burning. He didn't know which was worse, watching Rodney leap to conclusions or knowing that Teyla had been talking about him behind his back.
"John," she said as he brushed by her, but he didn't turn around.
The damage was already done.
"You must talk to him," Teyla said, eyeing him over her tea cup. She'd brought a loaded tray to his quarters, effectively cornering him, because even John was smart enough not to take her on when she was armed with near-boiling liquid.
"And say what?" John said. "Yeah, I risked his life. It wasn't anything I haven't done a hundred times before." He bent to take a sip of his tea, which tasted like burnt grass, but it was something to do and he didn't think Teyla would let him take out a comic book or polish his golf clubs like he always did when Rodney got weird on him. When Rodney used to get weird on him. Fuck.
"Yes," Teyla said gently, "but he does not know that. You have him at a disadvantage because you know more about him than he knows about you."
"It's not like I asked for this," John said.
"You must grant him the chance to get reacquainted," Teyla said. "It is the only way to honor your friendship."
John set his cup down and faced her squarely. "Look, it's not going to matter when he gets his memory back."
"If he gets his memory back," Teyla said, and her slight emphasis on the first word made a little shiver run up John's spine, "he will nevertheless remember how you treated him now."
"Crap," John said.
"He is feeling lost, John," Teyla said more gently. "He needs to know you don't hate him."
"Yeah, it's more like the other way around," John said grimly, but when Teyla raised her eyebrows at him, he cut off her budding protest with, "Fine, I'll talk to him. I'll talk to him right now."
"You will not regret it," she said, and began gathering her tea things.
Rodney was in the lab, hunched over his laptop with the memory device next to it, cables and wires attached at both ends. He didn't look up, and John hesitated in the doorway. He could always leave and try some other time. But the knot between Rodney's eyebrows looked more bleak than engrossed, and it made something in John's chest twist tight.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and made himself step forward. "McKay."
"Oh," Rodney said, with a twitch of his jaw. "It's you."
"Yeah, look," John said, and his chest twinged in an entirely different way, but he forced the words out. "I need to talk to you."
"I'm making progress," Rodney said quickly, like he thought John was here to chew him out. "Honestly, I am this close to understanding how it works."
"Yeah?" John said, and tried to make it sound encouraging. "What do you have?"
It worked, or at least Rodney lost a little of the hunted look. "Well, for awhile I thought maybe I'd been transported to a parallel universe, but I haven't found any evidence of that. The energy signature would have been diagnostic," he explained, like he thought John wouldn't know that, which . . . right. "And anyway, this thing is clearly designed to alter brain chemistry. I just haven't been able to figure out how to trace the effects."
John leaned against the nearest table. "Too bad about the parallel universe thing," he said.
Rodney's head jerked up. "What?"
Crap, Rodney was taking him all wrong again. "I just meant, you know, you could go back where you belonged."
Rodney scowled. "I see. And you would get back your own Rodney McKay, the one who remembers you."
Put like that, it sounded pretty crappy. "You're still you," John said, and that was the hardest part about this, having a Rodney who was still Rodney in every way but one. But this was his Rodney, and apparently he was going to have to learn to deal with that.
"Yeah," Rodney said quietly. "I'm still me."
"Look," John said, because he'd come here for a reason, and wallowing wasn't it. "What happened today — I can't have that going down again. I'm going to need you to go over some mission reports with me. Just until you're up to speed."
Rodney pressed his lips together in a tiny, frustrated gesture. "I already did that. And by the way, do you realize that you're ridiculously terse in your write-ups? I remember a hell of a lot more than what's in the official documents."
"I know," John said, because he couldn't exactly deny that. "That's why we need to do this together. So I can fill you in on what's not in there."
Rodney pressed his lips together. "It still sounds like a colossal waste of time."
John crossed his arms, feeling his jaw clench. Not that he'd expected Rodney would want to spend time with him. He really ought to be used to that by now. "I can't have you stalling on a time-critical mission again," he said. "We barely made it in there this afternoon, and if you'd delayed us a few minutes longer—"
"Okay, fine," Rodney said. "I'll do it. Right now, if you insist."
"Now?" John braced a casual hand on the table behind him, his pulse jolting behind his ears. "Don't you have work to do?"
"I haven't made any progress in hours," Rodney said, and shoved his chair back. "Might as well get this over with."
"Great," John said, and if he didn't manage to take all the sarcasm out of it, well, he tried. "C'mon, we can do it in my quarters."
Rodney closed his laptop with a snap and then just stood there. "Well?"
"Oh, right," John said, because of course he had to lead the way. He couldn't exactly expect Rodney to remember where his quarters were. "Let's go."
John sat on his couch because the bed was too weird and he didn't have two desk chairs. Rodney sat next to him, and whatever else was going on, he didn't seem to have personal space issues, because their knees were so close together they almost touched.
It was so much like the old Rodney that John had to just sit there and breathe for a moment, but he didn't move away, even if it would have been easier. A whole lot easier, because it was weird for Rodney's body to treat him like a friend while his brain was treating him like a stranger, and yes, okay, fine, for another reason, too. Not that that had ever really been an issue, because Rodney was straight.
Unless that was what this was about. Crap.
John swallowed and eased his knee away, just an inch. He wasn't going to panic. Hell, he'd never even thought about Rodney like that. Well, okay, he'd thought of everyone like that, but it wasn't like Rodney was a special case. Thoughts just happened when you weren't getting much action, and anyway, John was pretty sure he'd never let anything slip. Certainly nothing that would have made Rodney freak out. So that couldn't possibly be what this was about. Why Rodney had wanted to forget him.
"So," Rodney said, falsely bright. "Where should we start?"
It was a damn good question, and John had no idea how to answer it. "How about we go over some recent missions?"
"I already did that," Rodney said. "And anyway, there hasn't been all that much going on since we got back to Pegasus."
John frowned. "You do remember Todd escaping, right?"
"Yes, of course." Rodney made a face at him. "We should never have trusted him to— wait, was that you? Were you the one who let him—"
"Maybe we should go over some older missions," John said, because yes, he'd been stupid to give Todd even the slightest opportunity, and he really didn't need to rehash that part of it right now.
"You did," Rodney said. "You let him go."
"It wasn't intentional," John said. "We needed his help with the device or it would have destroyed the city. It wasn't my fault it all went to hell."
"Right," Rodney said, like he wasn't buying that at all, and damn it, this was not what they were here for. Rodney was supposed to be learning to trust him. "Of course not."
"Okay, look," John said, because he was getting desperate. "Maybe we need to concentrate on what you do remember, so we can figure out where the holes are. What you did today, converting the cloak to a shield — you remember where that came from?"
"Of course," Rodney said, and folded his arms over his chest. "Zelenka used it to rescue me when I was trapped in a jumper at the bottom of the ocean. I was actually a little surprised that he came up with it under pressure, although of course I would have thought of it if I'd been the one doing the rescuing."
"It was my idea," John said, which was only the truth.
Rodney turned to look at him. "Really?"
"Uh huh," John said, and he wasn't smug about it, not even a little, but maybe this would convince Rodney he was misjudging, here. If Rodney knew how many times they'd saved each other's lives, he'd have to understand. "Actually, I had a whole grapple system attached to the jumper, but when we discovered your jumper was too full of water to use it, we had to try something else."
Rodney frowned. "But Zelenka was the one who rescued me. I remember that clearly."
"Zelenka doesn't have the gene," John said. "I was the one who piloted the jumper." He reached for his laptop and pulled up the relevant file. "Here."
Rodney took the screen from him and glanced through the report. It didn't take him long to read, because John had, of course, been succinct. "You saved my life," Rodney said quietly.
"Well, it wasn't the first time," John said, and he knew it was wrong as soon as he'd said it, because Rodney's whole demeanor went suspicious, and then knowing.
"Ahh," he said. "So that's the game you're playing."
"What game?" John said, and twisted to face Rodney, coincidentally pulling a little farther away on the couch.
"Oh, please," Rodney said, and his arms were crossed over his chest again. "Do you think just because I've forgotten a few things, I'm stupid?"
"A few things?" John said.
"A person, an allergy, and a death threat — in the grand scheme of things, it's not so much. And don't try to distract me. I know what you're up to."
"What?" John said, because if anyone was playing games here, it was Rodney.
"You're trying to make yourself look good. Taking advantage of the fact that I don't remember you to sweep all the problematic stuff under the rug. Like I don't realize there's something else going on here. But remember?" Rodney tapped his forehead. "Forgetful, not stupid."
John's gut went queasy, because that hadn't been what he was doing. Honestly. "Never said you were stupid."
"No, because that would undermine your efforts. But you're the one's who's forgetting a vital piece of information here. There has to be a reason I forgot you, and I know you know what it is."
"Jesus, McKay," John said, and he couldn't take it anymore. He jerked to his feet and got some space between them. "Look, I swear, if there's a reason, I don't know it. I never hurt you or, or stressed you out, not about anything that's not in those damn reports." He waved a hand at the laptop still balanced on Rodney's knees. "I thought we were friends."
Rodney frowned, first at the screen and then at John. "Then why don't you call me 'Rodney'? Everyone else does."
John bit the inside of his cheek, hard. "You remember everyone else. How the hell am I supposed to treat you like normal when you're walking around acting like I pissed in your cornflakes?"
The furrow between Rodney's eyebrows grew deeper. "You mean, you used to use my first name?"
"Yes!" John shoved his hands into his pockets. "Well, not all the time. Just, you know, sometimes."
"Right," Rodney said tightly, like he was reading God-knew-what into that. He flipped the laptop closed and set it next to him on the couch. "So are we done here?"
John tightened his hands into fists in the bottoms of his pockets. "I just need to know one thing," he said. "Do you want off the team?"
"What?" Rodney got to his feet and took a couple of steps toward John. "Oh, is that what this is about? I'm damaged now, so I'm not good enough?"
"I'm not saying that," John grated.
"Or were you trying to get me off the team, before? Is that what the big secret is?"
"No!" John yelled. Crap. He pulled his hands out of his pockets so he could rub his face. "Okay, listen. I'm not trying to kick you off the team. I just . . . if you're going to be with us, we have to work together, as a team. Not like today."
"Fine," Rodney said. "I'll work with you. And Ronon and Teyla."
"I'm not worried about Ronon and Teyla," John said. "You remember them."
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, I do. So apparently they never screwed me over."
Fuck, John managed not to say, and concentrated on the windowsill for a minute.
"Colonel?" Rodney said after a long moment, and he sounded oddly tentative.
"Just go, McKay," John said.
"Okay," Rodney said, but he still sounded uncertain. "Going."
John heard the door open and close again, but he never looked up.
It was pure idiocy to attempt a normal mission with things the way they were, but the Coalition called and Woolsey refused to send another team. So of course things went sideways, and instead of figuring out what was up with the recent rash of cullings in the gamma sector, they ended up prisoners on a hive ship.
"Son of a . . ." John groaned, shaking off the stunner haze and sitting up.
"Oh, God, not again," Rodney whimpered, and opened his eyes. "I hate hive ships."
Ronon and Teyla were nowhere to be seen. Of course not. Because apparently the Wraith hated John just as much as the rest of the universe did.
"No place like a Wraith cell," John said. "Guess you haven't forgotten everything unpleasant."
Rodney heaved himself up and looked around. "Unfortunately not," he said. "You think this is Todd's hive?"
"I don't think so," John said, because the vibe he was getting from the walls didn't feel familiar, and what did it say about him that he'd been on hive ships often enough to start recognizing them? "The decor's not the same."
"Great," Rodney said.
John scooted over to prop his back against the nearest wall and took stock of the situation. He was weaponless, and they'd even gotten his boot knife, so there was no chance of pulling a Ronon. Rodney was patting his pockets, too, like he was looking for a weapon or a tool or . . . oh. Right. This was Rodney.
"Hungry?" John asked
Rodney blinked at him. "A little."
John wasn't in the habit of feeding his teammates; he expected them to be prepared to take care of their own needs in the field. But they'd geared up quickly, and under the circumstances he was willing to cut Rodney a little slack. "Here," he said, and handed over a powerbar.
"Thanks," Rodney said, and wolfed down half the bar before glancing up. "Wait, this isn't a bribe, is it? Because quite frankly, food is one area where I'm particularly vulnerable, and if you know me, you probably know that already."
"It's not a bribe," John said, and shifted his back against the lumpy wall. "I know you, so I would have known you'd see through it."
"Good point," Rodney said, and ate the rest of the bar.
John got to his feet and strolled over to the web that served for a door. It was sticky and iridescent and as disgusting as always. "Can't have you going hypoglycemic. You're the one who has to figure out how to get us out of here."
"Me?" Rodney said, climbing to his feet and joining John at the door. "Don't you have some sort of insanely dangerous military solution?"
John shook his head. "I'd need some explosive, or something to throw."
"Wonderful," Rodney said, and then frowned. "Wait, haven't we had this conversation before?"
John's heart kicked against his ribs. "You remember something?"
"No," Rodney said, and crap, even momentary hope was a bitch. "I just thought maybe . . . I guess it was just Carson, then."
"Oh," John said, because he suddenly knew what Rodney was talking about. "Yeah, you two were stuck on a hive together. You got out by reprogramming the dart beam to rematerialize you when they got down to the planet."
"Yes, yes," Rodney said. "Only Carson was the one who got us out of the cell."
"Damn," John said. They stood there side-by-side for a long moment, and then something compelled John to add, "I left you there."
"Where?" Rodney said, and there was more than a little suspicion in that, but John plowed on.
"On the hive ship. With Carson. You radioed for help, and I told you to rescue yourselves. Oh, and help me out by disabling the hive's weapons."
"Seriously?" Rodney said, and okay, it did sound bad.
"Yeah," John said, and stared out at the corridor.
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, but he didn't move away. After awhile he said in a quiet voice, "So do you think that was why . . ."
"I don't know," John said. He felt weirdly drained, like he'd just told Rodney a secret, even though it was nothing that wasn't in the damn mission reports. "Never thought you were the kind to hold a grudge."
"That was, what, a year ago?" Rodney said. "I don't remember being angry."
"Yeah, well, you wouldn't."
"Right," Rodney said.
They were silent for awhile, like there was nothing left to say.
"Thank you," Rodney said. "For telling me. You didn't have to do that, and it was nice to feel like you weren't trying to manipulate me. Unless, of course, you were just trying to convince me that you weren't, which is entirely—"
"McKay," John said, because one of them had to know when enough was enough.
"Right, I don't suppose airing my suspicions is particularly useful at this point."
"Not really, no."
"Hmmph." Rodney shifted his weight on his feet and watched the empty corridor for awhile. "You're really not going to do anything to get us out of here?"
John didn't look at him. "I'm not going to go off half-cocked. We need a plan."
"I'm aware of that, Colonel. I'm also aware of the fact that you don't seem to want to actually—"
John tried to cut him off with a hand gesture.
"—make a contribution to the—"
"McKay!" John stage-whispered, and Rodney finally, finally shut his mouth, just as the footsteps rounded the corner and proved themselves to be Ronon and Teyla.
"Oh, thank God," Rodney said, and John had to agree with the sentiment, even if he didn't say it out loud.
"Nice to see you," he said as Teyla pressed the door release.
"Dart bay?" Ronon said, and John nodded and let him lead the way.
"Wait, wait," Rodney said behind him, too damn loud. "What are we going to do when we get there? I mean, I am sure that if I had a computer and sufficient time, I could program a control interface, but without one, I mean, do you have any idea how counterintuitive the displays on a dart are? We'll be sitting—"
"Sheppard can fly one," Ronon said over his shoulder, and John was so grateful he could have kissed him.
"Seriously?" Rodney said, but Teyla said, "Since you cannot trust your memory, you must trust us," and Rodney shut his trap.
They found the dart bay with only a couple of missteps (it helped to have Ronon in the lead — not that John would have admitted that to anyone). Teyla shot up the door controls behind them and John headed for the nearest dart. The last thing he saw before the canopy closed around him was Rodney's still-disbelieving face, half skeptical, half panicked.
John's hands weren't exactly steady as he powered up the dart, but luckily there was no one there to see.
He made it through debriefing — not a pleasant experience, with Woolsey riding their asses because the Coalition was riding his about the way they'd blown up the hive ship without getting enough intel — and dinner with the team — equally unpleasant in its own, stilted way.
"Wait," Rodney said, looking at John for the first time since the debriefing, "how did you learn to fly a dart, anyway? Do you read Wraith?"
"Not exactly," John said. "You made me a computer interface once, when Ford was holding us."
"Oh," Rodney said, like he was struggling to remember. "Right, I remember working on the interface. That was for you?"
"I was the pilot. We were supposed to take you, but Ford decided to leave you behind for a hostage."
"That part," Rodney said, "I remember all too well. But that doesn't explain how you can fly it without any sort of translation."
John lifted a shoulder and pushed his meatloaf around his tray. "After I'd done it once, it just kind of made sense."
Rodney gave him a look that said he thought John was crazy, or worse. "Right. Because Wraith technology is so easy to use when you can't read the displays. What do you do, work on intuition?"
John lifted the other shoulder. "Maybe."
"You do! Oh, God, I should have known you'd be one of those," Rodney said.
John suppressed a grimace and pretended to be engrossed by his food while Teyla changed the subject.
He shouldn't have been surprised by Rodney's reaction; it was consistent with everything John knew about him — Rodney had always valued science over action, intellect over intuition. And actually, the weirdest thing about this conversation was that they'd never had it before. This couldn't possibly be the first time Rodney had thought that about him. It was, in fact, kind of bizarre that he'd never said anything before.
But clearly there were a lot of things they'd never talked about. And maybe they should have, while they'd still had the chance.
John had had just about all the Rodney he could take for one day, so he headed back to his quarters for a little peace and quiet after dinner. Only he couldn't stop thinking about the conversation — not the one at dinner, the one in the hive ship. The one where Rodney had momentarily almost appreciated him. And yes, it was pathetic to be stuck on that. He knew that. But he wanted . . . damn it. He wanted Rodney to remember him. But unless, no, until that happened, Rodney could at least realize that John wasn't trying to con him.
Because he wasn't. Honestly, he didn't care what Rodney thought of him; he just needed to be able to work together, and if Rodney could think he was a dick and still work with him, that was fine.
Well, kind of fine. Anyway, he could deal with it, and Rodney was going to get his memory back, so he'd remember that he actually liked John, and this whole "unpleasant memories" thing would be forgotten.
John didn't mean to go anywhere, but somehow he found himself at the lab where Rodney and Zelenka were hunched over the memory device, arguing in impenetrable Geek.
"So," John said. "How's it going?"
"Not so well," Zelenka said just as Rodney said, "Fine."
John looked from one to the other and decided Zelenka looked more trustworthy. "What's the problem?"
"We have mapped the workings of the device," Zelenka said.
"And?" John said.
"It's actually quite simple. It finds connections in the brain associated with a certain kind of stress response, and severs them."
John leaned against Zelenka's work table. "Okay, so Rodney was stressed about something to do with me, and it zapped the part of his brain that remembers me."
"Not exactly," Zelenka said. "You see, actually, there is no damage to his brain."
"You want to run that by me again?" John said, because the one thing he'd been sure of was the brain damage thing.
"Rodney's neurons are not damaged," Zelenka said. "It is merely the pattern of interneural connections that has been altered."
"There's no engram," Rodney said, straightening from his screen. "It's not like you have a cell in your brain that corresponds to your memory of your grandmother. It's a parallel distributed system."
"Meaning?" John prompted, because he was kind of at sea, here.
"Thought is a pattern of activation. Imagine your brain cells are Christmas tree lights, billions of them. A single thought is millions of neurons scattered across the brain all lighting up at once."
"Okay," John said, because that still didn't explain anything. "So?"
"So memory is a pattern that's been reinforced so it can be reactivated. Like the lights have been wired to each other, so that when one part of it lights up, the rest does, too." Rodney spread his fingers, opening and closing his hands like that was supposed to demonstrate something. "This device interrupts those connections, so the pattern doesn't recur. No pattern, no memory."
"But your brain cells are still intact," John said, because he was pretty sure that was important.
"Exactly!" Rodney said. "So all we have to do to reverse it is figure out which connections were interrupted, and reconnect the wires. Metaphorically speaking, that is."
"Yes, that is the problem," Zelenka said. "We cannot find a way to determine which synapses are affected."
"It has to be here," Rodney said. "There must be some sort of trace left behind."
"But we have found nothing. We have scanned the device and your brain with every diagnostic tool we have, and we have found nothing."
Rodney got his pissy look, the one that was usually a cover for something else. "Well, maybe we're looking for the wrong thing."
"Yes, that is possible," Zelenka said. "But not tonight. You are tired, Rodney."
"I could be making progress. I might be about to make a breakthrough."
"It is not time-critical," Zelenka argued. "There is no need to kill yourself trying to solve it."
"Says the man whose brain is undamaged."
"I thought you said it wasn't damaged," John said, and both pairs of blue eyes swiveled to look at him.
"Yes," Rodney said. "Technically speaking, I'm undamaged. I just wish I could remember, because honestly, this is driving me insane. Do you have any idea what it's like to doubt every memory of every experience, wondering if there's a vital hole in it? To wonder if at some crucial moment I'll make a mistake because I've come up against something I used to find unpleasant?"
Crap. There was pain in that, and clearly John had had his head stuck up his ass for far too long, because he hadn't stopped to think what this must feel like for Rodney.
"You want to get a beer?" he heard himself say, and Rodney's eyes went wide.
"Oh, God, we drink together?"
John kept his posture elaborately casual. "Sometimes."
Rodney looked from John to Zelenka, who gave him an encouraging lift of the eyebrows, and then back to John.
"Well, I don't know if I . . ."
"C'mon," John said. "I won't even take you to the pier."
They ended up at the base of the central tower, because John wasn't going to make the mistake of hanging out in his room again, and the mess seemed too public. There were wide, shallow steps to sprawl on, right next to the water, but it was calm here, a peaceful pool enclosed on all sides, lit by the soaring city all around them.
John cracked open a can of Molson's — cheap beer was cheap beer and he didn't care where it came from, but Rodney did — and passed it over.
"We really do this," Rodney said, and looked at the can suspiciously.
"Not all the time," John admitted, because actually, it had been awhile. "Just when we need to relax."
Rodney frowned at his beer can and then tipped it up for a long gulp. "I'm not feeling very relaxed yet."
"I noticed," John said. He took a healthy swig himself and leaned back on his elbows.
"Well, how am I supposed to feel?" Rodney said. "You've known me for five years, and I don't know you at all. I don't even know what you know about me. It feels like you've been spying on me."
"Jesus, McKay," John said, and he hadn't had enough beer for this conversation. "I never even . . . look, you just like to talk. And in five years, you've talked about a lot of things."
Rodney shot him a look. "Like what?"
John frowned. "You want me to tell you stuff I know about you?"
"Yes, well, you claim we're friends. How else am I supposed to know if that's the truth?"
Christ. There wasn't enough beer in the galaxy for this conversation. "Okay," John said, but what was he supposed to say? What would prove beyond a doubt that Rodney had trusted him? "I know about your cat dying. When we were on Earth. You didn't even get to see him."
Rodney's face puckered, and oh, shit.
"Tell me you hadn't forgotten that."
"No," Rodney said. "No, I remember. I just didn't think I'd told anyone."
"You told Teyla, too," John said. "Maybe you forgot the whole incident because I was there."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Wait, it was in San Francisco. I'd just taken the phone call and Teyla wanted to go to Starbucks."
"Yeah," John said. "You drowned your sorrows in a Venti white chocolate mocha."
Rodney's head turned slowly to stare at him. "You remember what drink I ordered?"
John kept his eyes on the reflected lights in the water. It wasn't that weird. "It was only a couple of months ago," he said. "And you usually get plain coffee, so it was memorable."
"Yeah, well, my cat had just died," Rodney said.
"I'm sorry," John said, because Rodney wouldn't remember him saying it the first time.
Rodney was staring at the lights in the water, too. "Thanks."
John shifted and took another drink of his beer. "This isn't working, is it?"
"Not really, no."
"Yeah, I thought not."
"It just feels wrong," Rodney said. "And even if we talked for days, even if you told me every single thing you know about me, it wouldn't be the same as actually remembering it myself."
"I know," John said. "But it's temporary, right? Just until you figure out the device."
"I don't know if I can," Rodney said in a small, lost voice, and something in John's gut went cold and queasy.
"Of course you can," he said, but it came out sounding as false as it felt.
"You do realize that some things are impossible, right? I mean, we're talking about billions of neurons, trillions of synaptic connections. If I can't find a map of what was done to me, there is absolutely no way to reverse the effects."
John took another gulp of beer, because that sounded bad, really bad, and he had no idea what to say. "You figure out anything else you've forgotten?"
"Not yet," Rodney said.
"You remembered about your cat," John said. "That's good, right?"
"Yeah," Rodney said, but his voice was tired. "Apparently it wasn't something I was actively stressing over."
Right, and of course it wasn't. Which meant the thing with John, whatever it was, had been. "I swear, if I knew why you would've wanted to forget me, I'd tell you."
"We didn't have an argument?" Rodney said. "Some kind of ongoing conflict?"
"You mean over something other than who's the most powerful comic book supervillain?"
"Yeah, apart from that, and let me guess, you picked Magneto over Dr. Doom."
John leaned back on his elbows, feeling something loosen in his chest, because brain damage or no, that was his Rodney. "Oh, come on. The Master of Magnetism versus a guy in a metal suit? It's a no-brainer."
"Ah, but Dr. Doom would have a plan, a back-up plan, and a back-up plan for his back-up plan. There is just no way Magneto would manage to outthink him. And clearly he'd devise some sort of shielding for the suit."
"Yeah," John said. "That's what you said last time."
"I did? Oh, right, of course I did."
"I'm pretty sure that's not what you were stressing about," John added.
"No," Rodney said. "No, it wouldn't be."
John had a sudden, surprisingly strong impulse to reach over and touch Rodney's shoulder. He kept his hands where they were. "There wasn't any other argument. Not about anything that mattered."
Rodney took another long drag of his beer. "Of course there wasn't," he said, and the sour note in his voice was back.
Damn it all to hell.
John sat up, but Rodney just looked hopeless. Like he'd given up on John entirely, and that was just . . . crap. "Look, I always thought we . . . okay. Okay, I guess I used to do it on purpose sometimes," John said slowly. "Argue with you, I mean."
Rodney's nose wrinkled. "Seriously?"
John nodded and forced himself to say more. "Not about anything important. Just, you know. Superheroes. Evel Knievel. Stuff to make you rant."
"Oh, so you think it's funny? Ha, ha, watch the geek foam at the mouth?"
"No," John said, because he didn't, he'd never . . . "It wasn't like that." I thought you enjoyed it. "It was just, you know, a way to pass time."
"Hmph," Rodney said. "So you think I . . . you think that's what I was stressing about?"
"I don't know," John said. "Look, I'm trying here, okay?"
Rodney's eyes met his, still suspicious. "Yes, okay, I get it. I'm not . . . I mean, it must have been something worse than that."
"Right," John said, and didn't look at Rodney.
The silence went on for awhile. A really long time, considering that this was Rodney. John drank some more of his beer.
"So that's it," Rodney said finally. "You used to argue with me about comic books just to annoy me. That's the best explanation you can come up with for why I was apparently so stressed out about you that that ridiculous excuse for a Spotless Mind machine thought I'd be happier if I forgot you?
"Didn't say that," John said, and he didn't want to do this — hell, he'd rather be anywhere but here right now — but he owed it to Rodney to at least try. The Rodney who used to remember him, and the one right here who didn't. "I get on your case sometimes. When we're in a situation. I make you work faster. You hate that."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, like you think it will be better if I go so fast I make mistakes?"
John shrugged. "You work well under pressure."
"Hmph," Rodney sniffed. "Well, that is a talent, of course." He turned to look at John. "Somehow I don't think you're getting much closer, here."
John leaned back on his hands and pretended his heart wasn't jittering in his chest. "I once gave Cameron Mitchell a lemon."
Rodney's face scrunched into confusion. "A lemon?"
"You're allergic to citrus, remember? I, ah, told him to use it if you were giving him a hard time. Guess you kind of freaked out."
"Oh, that is just . . . seriously? What was it, some kind of a joke?"
"Never told you it was me," John said. "I don't know if you figured it out."
"Of course I figured it out," Rodney said. "I mean, given the obvious clues and the power of my intellect, it's ludicrous to imagine that I didn't. Although I don't remember Mitchell with the lemon, but, right, I would have forgotten that along with the citrus allergy. Was that while we were on Earth?"
"No, it was awhile ago. When SG-1 came to Atlantis, looking for a way to defeat the Ori supergate."
"But that was . . . that was more than three years ago."
"Yeah," John said.
"You think I was still stressing about a lemon three years ago?"
"Hey," John said, because that wasn't fair. "I know you've forgotten it, but you used to take your allergy seriously. Very, very seriously."
"Well, I would hope so," Rodney said with a sniff. "Given that, oh, I don't know, it could kill me." He looked up with a jerk. "Please tell me you weren't trying to kill me."
"It was a fucking joke," John said. "Also, it was kind of stupid."
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, it certainly was. So. What else?"
John made a face, because he'd kind of been hoping that one would get him off the hook, but no. Apparently Rodney wanted to air all the dirty laundry tonight, which meant John was going to have to drag out something else, when he hadn't even been thinking about . . . okay, so maybe he had. "I flirted with a girl I knew you were interested in."
Rodney blinked. "Jennifer?"
"Hell, no," John said, because Rodney had been serious about her, and the idea made him feel kind of sick. "Norina."
"Oh, right, the Teranan." Rodney leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "The one Michael killed."
"I think he killed all of them."
"Fine, but he killed her, too. A shame. She had absolutely amazing—"
"Yeah, she was hot," John said, because objectively speaking, she had been, but he really didn't need to hear that from Rodney right now. "I'm just saying, it was a crappy thing to do."
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, it was. Was she any good in bed?"
"I don't know," John said, as bland as he could make it.
"You mean you didn't even . . . oh, so it was some kind of dog in the manger act, is that it? You just wanted to make sure she turned me down?"
John winced and tried to hide it with another gulp of beer. Funny how he'd never thought about it that way before. "Hey, it wasn't like that. She was distracting you, and we needed you to save everyone's lives. We were in the middle of an exploding volcano."
"Supervolcano," Rodney said, but he didn't seem mollified.
"Whatever." Right, well, it was time to move on, anyway. "Oh, hey, I pushed you off a balcony once," John said, because at least that sounded bad. "And just before that, I shot you."
"Ah, now we're getting somewhere," Rodney said.
"We were testing the personal shield, the one you found the first week we were here in the city. Remember that?"
"Yes, yes of course. But I remember testing it myself. I asked Peter Grodin to hit me."
"The balcony was before that. You didn't tempt Grodin until you were sure you wouldn't get hurt."
Rodney sighed and sat up. "So I wasn't injured."
"Nope. You said the thing had some sort of inertial dampener."
"It did," Rodney said, and turned his beer can around in his hand. "Something tells me I wouldn't be stressing about that five years later."
"No," John said, because he'd known that. He was just running out of ideas. "Sorry." He twisted the tab of his can around, hard enough to break it off. "There was another time I shot you," he said, and this one was the hardest one, the one he really didn't want to talk about. "Remember that Wraith device on M1B-129? It made us all see things, and I saw you as . . . Taliban. So I shot you."
"That was you?"
John nodded, staring straight ahead.
"Seriously? I don't believe it. I was laid up for weeks!"
"I didn't hit any vital organs," John said.
"You came awfully close."
"I know!" John said, and crap, his beer can had somehow become a twisted, shapeless wreck in his hands. "Look, I know. I just . . ."
Rodney leaned forward, his eyes on the water in front of him. "So you're saying it was a pattern of behavior," he said slowly. "You mocked me, pestered me, ruined my chances at romance, and shot me, and you think I resented it enough to be still stressing over it, years later."
"I don't know," John said, because he'd never thought that that stuff mattered. Not compared to everything else they'd been through. "I don't read minds."
"I see," Rodney said. "And there's nothing else you're not telling me?"
"Nothing I can think of," John said, because he'd been racking his brain for two days and if there was anything else, he'd forgotten it, too.
"Then I believe we're done, here," Rodney said, and without even bothering to pick up his beer can, he climbed to his feet and brushed his hands on his thighs. "Um, thanks for the beer."
"Anytime," John said, and wished to hell he actually meant it.
He didn't watch Rodney go.
So apparently it was possible to feel raw and numb at the same time. Which didn't help much with the issue at hand, which was the uptick in cullings, and the fact that the Coalition expected them to a) investigate, and b) stop it. As far as they could tell, blowing up one hive ship hadn't changed a damn thing.
"We could talk to Todd," John said, not that that was a can of worms he wanted opened, but he was getting desperate.
Teyla lifted her eyebrows, Ronon leaned back in his chair, and Woolsey cleared his throat, but Rodney beat them all to the punch.
"Are you insane?" he said, swiveling to face John. "He wants to kill me!"
"Relax, McKay," John said. "He only wanted to kill you because of the computer virus, and you forgot what you were doing before you finished it."
"Yes, well, he doesn't know that."
"I'm just saying," John said. "If anyone knows what's going on, he would. And if there's another super hive ship out there, we need to know about it."
Rodney's eyes were wide. "You really think he's going to talk to you? Just tell you what's up, no strings attached?"
"I didn't say that," John said. "And I'm not saying I trust him. I'm just saying we need intel, and he probably has it. And we have a history with this guy."
"You do not remember," Teyla said, folding her hands in front of her on the conference table, "but John and Todd have a certain . . . understanding."
Rodney looked from Teyla to John, his eyes even wider. "You're buddy-buddy with a Wraith?"
"Well, it's not like we swap hair care tips," John said.
Rodney's eyes flicked up to the top of his head. "That's probably for the best."
"So," John said, pointedly looking away from Rodney, "are we doing this?"
"You have my permission to contact him," Woolsey said. "But be careful."
"You got it," John said, and pushed back in his chair.
John's quiet, desperate hope that Rodney would have his brain fixed before the mission died a miserable little death in the jumper bay, when Rodney brushed past him without a word.
John turned and followed him into Jumper 3. He was so fucking sick of being the bad guy. He wanted to grab Rodney's shoulders and yell some sense into him, and then maybe shake him a little.
Of course, that would probably go over about as well as his perfectly well-intentioned attempt to figure out the source of the stress. His best bet right now was to sit tight and shut his mouth.
That turned out to be fairly easy, because Rodney spent the hour it took to get to the rendez-vous point determinedly grilling Teyla and Ronon about anything and everything he'd forgotten about Todd. John figured if he wasn't being asked, he didn't need to contribute, and anyway, he was busy flying. Through empty, uncomplicated space, but whatever. The point was, he was busy.
"So you're saying Todd fed on Sheppard? And Sheppard let him go?"
John did his best to tune the whole conversation out, and look at that, there was the hyperspace window, right on cue, and then Todd's hive had arrived and there was no more time for chit chat.
Todd greeted them before the hatch was even fully open. "Colonel Sheppard. I'm surprised it took you so long."
"Then I guess you know about our little problem," John said.
"We may have a thing or two to discuss," Todd said. "Come." And he led the way down a corridor to a room that had benches arranged along two walls. "Please, make yourselves at home."
Rodney started to sit, but John kept his feet, flanked by a wary Teyla and a scowling Ronon. Rodney caught Teyla's eye and straightened, brushing the front of his jacket like he'd meant to do that all along.
"We're not here to get comfortable," John said. "We need to know what's going on. We're hearing reports of a six hundred percent increase in cullings in the gamma sector, and we want to know who's responsible."
Todd gave him an assessing look. "Why should I tell you?"
"No reason," John said bluntly. "Except something tells me these guys are taking a little more than their fair share of the food supply. And if they keep it up, there's not going to be enough to go around."
"Ah, yes," Todd said, and John knew he'd hit the nail on the head. "It is a conundrum."
"But you're not doing anything about it," John said. "Either that, or you're the one who's responsible."
Todd spread his hands, and John felt rather than saw Rodney cringe at the sight of his right palm. "I swear, I have nothing to do with it."
"Of course not," Ronon said, with just the right amount of disgust.
"There is one queen," Todd said, apparently relenting, "who has formed a very strong alliance. In response to the shortage of food, she has decided to accelerate her next hibernation cycle."
"Wait, wait, that would explain it," Rodney broke in, snapping his fingers like he'd forgotten his fear in the rush of intellectual comprehension. "She's accelerated her feeding schedule to match."
"Yes," Todd said. "My kind require a certain amount of sustenance to support a lengthy hibernation."
"So, what, she's trying to pack a hundred years' worth of feeding into a few months?" John said.
"It would appear so," Todd said.
Teyla frowned. "And you are not going to do anything about it."
"She controls seven hive ships. She has already destroyed several hives that protested her encroachment on their feeding grounds. She would be a formidable enemy."
"Great," Rodney said, and it looked like he'd remembered to be afraid again. "But you're happy to send us after her."
Todd turned to face Rodney directly. "When I last saw you, you were working on a computer virus."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me. Did you or did you not threaten to feed on me if I ever used it?"
"Circumstances have changed." Todd took a step toward Rodney, who took a step back. John casually put his hand on his holster, which neither of them seemed to notice, but it made him feel better. "You said your virus would allow you to control a hive ship remotely."
"I did?" Rodney said, a little wide-eyed. "Is that what it was sup—"
"So what are you suggesting?" John interrupted, with a significant look in Rodney's direction that Rodney missed completely. "You want us to control her ship? Fly it somewhere in particular?"
Rodney made a face. "Look, even if I could—" John gave him a full-on glare, and this time he actually noticed it. "Fine, whatever. The point is, no virus, even one of my design, is going to work like that. Wraith, as we know, are extremely adaptable. Even if it works initially, they're going to figure out a work-around and regain control. Best case scenario, we'd have an hour of control at best. Maybe less."
"We could do a lot with an hour," John said.
"Yes," Todd said. "An hour would be sufficient for many things."
"Okay," Rodney said. "I don't even want to know."
"So what you're saying," John said, turning back to Todd, "is that you're not going to get your shorts in a knot if we use our virus against this rogue alliance."
"Provided you don't use it anywhere else," Todd said.
"Yeah, no promises," John said, just to yank Todd's chain, and got an ugly-toothed grin in response.
"Allow me to escort you back to your ship."
"I can't believe you did that," Rodney said before they'd even finished undocking.
"What, braved the big, bad Wraith den?" John said.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "No, I mean, promised something we can't deliver."
John shot him a sideways glance as he guided the jumper out of the dart bay. "What do you mean, can't deliver?"
"In case you've forgotten something — which would be incredibly ironic here — I never finished that virus. And now I don't even remember how I meant to do it!"
"Oh, come on," John said, as the hive ship fell away behind them. "You're not brain damaged. You'll figure it out."
"It's not as simple as that," Rodney said, but there was something under the surface, a tightness around his eyes that was different than his usual panic.
"Rodney," Teyla said, leaning forward from her seat behind him. "Could you not reconstruct your work? Surely if you understood it before, you can understand it once again."
"Maybe," Rodney said, but he didn't sound convinced. "I haven't been able to reconstruct any memories of Sheppard."
"That's different," John said, because the note in Rodney's voice was causing an ache right under his breastbone. "I'm not something you can just figure out. And anyway, in the grand scheme of things, forgetting about me isn't such a big deal, right?"
"That's easy for you to say."
No, John thought. No, it really isn't. "You can do this," he said. "You don't need to remember anything. Just figure it out again."
Rodney turned to face him. "And what if I can't? What if it's like the puddlejumper hyperdrive, and I can never fully grasp what I'd been thinking?"
The pain in John's chest squeezed tighter. "You're still just as smart as you were," he said, and he had to believe that. He had to. "Keller said you passed all of her tests at exactly the same level you always have."
"Well, at my level, intelligence is pretty much unquantifiable," Rodney said, but his eyes lost a little of their panicked glaze. "You really think I'm the same?"
Except for the part where you hate me, John didn't say. "Sure," he managed, although it came out a little rough. "Same old Rodney McKay."
"Hmmmph," Rodney said, and turned back to face the windshield. "Well, I suppose the only way to find out if I can do it is to try."
"That's the attitude," John said, but the twinge in his chest didn't go away.
It was stupid. Painfully stupid, but it was like he was a moth, and Rodney was a giant porch light. Every evening John told himself he'd find something useful to do, like wax the surf board he never had time to use, and every evening he found himself on the stairs of the central tower, just accidentally passing by Rodney's lab.
On weak days, he went in.
"Do you have to hover? I told you, it's not done yet. I don't know if it's going to get done. Which, in case you didn't notice, is exactly what I told you yesterday. And the day before."
Right, so maybe most days counted as weak days. "What about the memory device?" John said. "Wouldn't it be easier to fix your brain first, and then finish the virus?"
"Zelenka's working on it," Rodney said. "Although he doesn't seem to be making any progress. Funny how the old sayings are true; if you want something done you have to do it yourself."
John snagged a chair and pulled it up next to Rodney's. "Tell me what you've got so far."
Rodney wrinkled his nose at him like he'd just turned into a bug or something. "Wait, now you're a programmer? Do you do that by intuition, too? Because I thought you couldn't read Wraith."
John held up his hands. "Whoa, there. I didn't mean it that way. I'm just looking for the—" God, what did Rodney call it? "—Coles notes version."
Rodney's eyes widened momentarily, like he hadn't expected that, like he still didn't believe John knew him that well. "Okay," Rodney said. "Fine. I've gotten to the point where I understand the code I've written, but it only goes so far. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's ingenious, but there's no way it could remotely control anything; there's no means of long-distance communication built into it. I guess that was the part I still had left to write."
They were sitting close enough that John could feel the warmth of Rodney's body radiating between them, and it was pathetic that he found that comforting, but he did. "You said before it was designed to create a back door into their operating system. That it was subtle, so they'd never know it was running until you took control."
"Yes, yes, that's the ingenious part. But it doesn't solve the problem of how to connect to it. I mean, the obvious route is a subspace channel, but given the central functionality of subspace to Wraith communications, I don't see how I can possibly do that and avoid detection."
"You said," John said, dredging up everything he could possibly remember, "that you were planning to 'exploit the organic nature of the hives.' Something about the way they talk to each other?"
Rodney stared at him, mouth open. "Oh my God, I am a genius. Of course. I could disguise the signal inside the ship-to-ship data stream, piggybacking on the biotic transceivers. It's a substratal process, so they wouldn't even . . ." He trailed off, swiveled back to face his screen, and began to type furiously.
John leaned back in his chair and didn't even try to hide his grin. "Now that's the Rodney McKay I know and, ah, remember."
Rodney didn't look up. "Busy, here."
John crossed his ankles. It wasn't exactly like old times, but he'd take it. "Don't bother to thank me."
"What?" Rodney glanced up from his typing, his eyes unfocused. "Oh, right, thanks." And he turned back to his work.
"You're welcome," John said.
Rodney kept typing, so John stretched some more. He could still feel Rodney's warmth and it felt real and a little manic and utterly Rodney. Not that he'd missed that. He just wanted everything to be back to normal, and this was the closest he'd come yet.
Rodney lifted his head. "Look, you are incredibly distracting. Do you mind?"
"What?" John sat up straight, pulling his boots underneath him. "I didn't even say anything."
"You don't have to speak," Rodney said. "You're distracting by existing."
"You want me to stop existing?" John said, and he wasn't hurt. There was no reason to take it personally.
"No," Rodney said, screwing up his face and waving a dismissive hand. "Just give me a couple of hours to work in peace, would you?"
"Yeah, okay," John said, and got to his feet. "Let me know when you get somewhere."
"Sure," Rodney said, but he was in the thrall of his screen again. He didn't even look up when John put his chair back where it had been, shoved his hands in his pockets, and turned to go.
There was a pounding on his door. "John," the voice said. Rodney's voice. "John!"
John rolled over and pushed the covers off. Shit, it was . . . shit. He was on his feet and halfway to the door before he remembered that Rodney didn't have a parasite and didn't call him John anymore and that meant . . .
"Rodney." Rodney was dressed just the way he had been in the lab, and not unduly disheveled. "Did you get your memory back?"
Rodney blinked at him. "Memory? Oh, no. No spontaneous recovery. Sorry, I just . . . you told me to tell you when I was finished."
"Oh," John said, and the bastard flutter of hope in his chest died an ugly death. "You called me John."
Rodney frowned. "Didn't I use to?"
"No, I mean, yes," John said, and maybe he wasn't fully awake yet. "Sometimes. What time is it?"
Rodney held up his left wrist. "It's only quarter past midnight. Zelenka said you're usually still up, or I wouldn't have knocked."
Right. Zelenka. Of course Rodney wouldn't know without asking someone. John rubbed his eyes. "I was just tired," he said.
"This can wait," Rodney said. "I just wanted to let you know I'd finished."
"You mean the virus?" The sleep fog suddenly receded. "I thought you still had a lot to do."
"It all fell into place," Rodney said, and now John could see he was bouncing on his toes. "Once I realized how I'd intended to do it, it was just a question of getting the lines of code in place."
"You mean it's ready to go?" John said.
"We can deploy it tomorrow."
"Wow," John said, and he was suddenly bizarrely conscious of the fact that he was standing there in nothing but a pair of old boxer shorts and a ratty t-shirt. "That's, uh, really good."
"Right," Rodney said. "I guess we should both get some sleep."
It wasn't like Rodney had noticed. Rodney was just acting like Rodney. The old Rodney, the new Rodney, both Rodneys, whatever. "Yeah. We'll call Woolsey and the team for a meeting, first thing."
"Okay, then," Rodney said, and just sort of stood there, looking at him. Which was what made John realize he was just sort of standing there looking at Rodney. And then Rodney's eyes strayed to the left and latched on to something in the shadowy corner of the room. "Hey, wait, is that my jacket?"
John followed Rodney's gaze to his file cabinet, the one that really wasn't visible from anywhere else in the room. The one that had a gray and blue uniform jacket draped over it. "Um." John said, because he'd kind of forgotten about that, but Rodney must have left it when they'd last played chess, and how was it possible that that was only a week and a half ago?
Rodney was already striding over to the corner. "Oh, my God. It is my jacket."
"Sorry," John said. "I kind of forgot it was there."
Rodney snatched it up and turned to face him. "I can't believe you . . . I've been looking for it everywhere."
"It's not like you don't have three others just like it," John said, because honestly, he didn't see what the big deal was.
"That's not the point," Rodney said, and he looked ticked, which was nuts. It wasn't like John had been keeping the jacket on purpose. He'd just forgotten about it. "The point is, you had it, and you knew I wouldn't remember that you had it."
John held up his hands. "I wasn't holding it hostage."
"Well, you might as well have been."
"Jesus, McKay. I didn't steal it. You left it here yourself."
"Of course I did." Rodney didn't sound the least bit satisfied, but he turned back to the door, still clutching the jacket tightly.
"See you tomorrow," John said pointedly, and Rodney gave him a quick, belligerent glance before heading out the door.
Rodney was acting weird in the pre-mission briefing. Weirder than normal, which was saying something. He kept glancing at John, and then scowling and looking away. Like he couldn't bear to actually look at him, but couldn't stop himself, which was just . . . crap. What the hell was going on in that hyperactive brain?
"Look," John said, because it was driving him nuts. "Maybe we should leave McKay home on this one. Give him a little more time to work on his brain."
"Are you crazy?" Now Rodney was glaring. "Who's going to run the remote guidance if I'm not there?"
"I believe Dr. McKay is mission critical," Woolsey said, and even he was looking at John like he'd misplaced a few marbles. "And he has just proven his brain to be in excellent working order."
Yeah, except for one little thing. "Fine," John said. "Let's get this show on the road."
Rodney's weirdnesses aside, the plan went suspiciously smoothly. They located the rogue Queen's hive thanks to intel from Todd, and managed to approach in stealth mode after gating to a nearby planet. And then, just as they were discussing (arguing about) the best way to get inside, the dart bay doors opened on their own accord.
"Whoa," John said, and Rodney said, "Wait, wait, have they seen us?"
"We're cloaked," John said, "and you're not getting any unusual energy readings, are you?"
"No," Rodney said, as the darts began to pour out. "The energy profile looks pretty standard. No sign of a ZPM on board."
"They have not seen us," Teyla said. "The Queen is . . . anticipating something. Someone, but it is not us."
"They can't be here for a culling," Rodney said. "The planet's uninhabited."
"She's showing her strength," Ronon said. "Look." And damn if he wasn't right, because the hive's outriders — cruisers and transports — were arraying themselves in what looked like a pretty aggressive formation.
"Let's not stick around to find out why," John said, and dove for the closing dart bay door.
They worked quickly, finding Rodney a terminal while John and Ronon and Teyla kept watch. It was surprisingly quiet, probably because of all the Wraith out manning the darts.
"Another hive ship has arrived," Teyla announced, low and urgent. "Rodney, you must hurry."
"I'm working as fast as I can," he said.
"The Queen of this hive is very confident," Teyla said. "She was expecting the second hive, and is showing no weakness."
"Can she sense you?" John asked.
"No," Teyla said. "She is concentrating on the other Queen. We can use this to our advantage."
"Sure," John said. "If McKay will hurry up and upload the virus."
"This is an extremely delicate process," Rodney said, his fingers still dancing across his tablet. "It's not going to work if they're aware of it, and if I don't do this exactly right, they're going to be aware of it."
"I know that," John said. "I just need you to do it exactly right and fast."
"Oh my God, is this what you do to me?" Rodney's hands had stopped moving, and he was looking at John rather than his screen. "You loom over me like some sort of petty, fluffy-haired tyrant, asking for the impossible, done yesterday? Because let me tell you, this is not helping at all."
"Just upload the damn virus," John said, and fell back to a position where he could see the far corridor more easily. His face wasn't warm, and he wasn't thinking about Rodney maybe possibly being justified in his protest, because he had more important things to do, and anyway, Rodney worked better under pressure. There were plenty of data points to prove that.
"They are getting closer," Teyla said, and then John said, "No shit," as the corridor ahead of him filled with Wraith drones.
He heard the thwack of Ronon's blaster and the spit of Teyla's P90 as he ducked for cover and fired. "Rodney, how's it coming?"
"It's coming!" Rodney shouted, and he was crouched behind the terminal, fingers still flying. "Five more minutes."
"We may not have five minutes!" John yelled back.
"There's only so fast I can work!"
"I could say the same," John muttered, and took out two more Wraith. There was a pause in the action, but Ronon's gun was still going, zap-thwack, zap-thwack. And then the ship-wide alarm went off.
"Damn it!" Rodney straightened to look at the Wraith screen. "I'm almost there."
"This is me not telling you to hurry," John yelled, and turned to face the oncoming hordes once again.
"There are too many," Teyla said. "We cannot keep this up!" And as John turned to check on her, he saw Ronon take a glancing blast from a stunner and then half-dodge, half-stumble into the cover of a side corridor.
"Okay, okay, okay," Rodney stalled. "There! It's done. I can't tell if it's working, but it's done."
"Good enough," John said. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Go," Ronon said, and he was upright and firing again. "We'll be right behind you."
"We go together," John said, because he had a bad feeling about this.
"Go now!" Teyla said. "If Rodney does not make it out, this has all been for nothing."
Right. That was the point. And Ronon and Teyla would be right behind them. There were only so many drones the Queen could send after them.
"Come on!" John shouted, and grabbed Rodney's elbow, firing over his shoulder and running for the corridor that led back the way they had come. The dart bay wasn't far, and Teyla and Ronon were covering for them, so they made it to the still-cloaked jumper unscathed, Rodney gasping for breath as John hauled him up the hatchway.
"Teyla, Ronon, come in," John said, and he heard more gunfire.
"We are surrounded," Teyla said, low and breathless. "Ronon has been stunned. Go now, John, and get us out later when you—"
There was the sound of stunner fire just before the link cut off, and John damn well knew what that meant. He was in the pilot's seat already, firing up the drive pods, and Rodney was sliding into the seat next to him, tapping furiously on his tablet.
"Is it working?" John asked.
"I don't know yet."
The windshield flashed blue — stunner fire, which meant . . . crap. A dozen Wraith had poured into the dart bay and were firing into the open space, hoping to get in a lucky shot.
"We need to get out of here," John said, releasing the docking clamps and giving the jumper a little vertical. "Can you test it by opening the dart bay doors?"
"No," Rodney said. "I mean, maybe. But even if I could, I wouldn't want to tip our hand. As soon as we activate this thing, they're on notice, and we have no idea how long it's going to take them to figure out how to override it."
"Good point," John said, and added some forward momentum. "Well, there's more than one way to skin a cat."
"I hate that metaphor," Rodney muttered as John fired a drone. "Wait, what are you . . . ? Are you insane? You just gave away our position!"
"It's not going to be our position for long," John said, and hit the juice as the dart bay doors exploded in front of them. They burst through the last coiling tendrils of the fireball and John rolled left as the nearby darts began to turn and fire indiscriminately. One bolt came within meters of a direct hit, but John was already twisting and dodging, and then he was out of range and the darts were scattering in confusion.
Rodney was back to typing madly on his keyboard. The urge to tell him to hurry was strong, but John bit his tongue and settled on putting a little distance between them and the rogue Queen's hive. The second hive, the one Teyla had sensed, was closer to the planet, its own cruisers arrayed around it in a tight formation. Defensive. Or possibly submissive. The subtleties of Wraith interaction were still hard to figure.
"How close do you need to be?" John asked, when he was far enough from the first hive to breathe a little easier.
"Ideally, I'd like us between the two hives," Rodney said. "In case they try to triangulate the piggybacked signal."
"Gotcha," John said, and turned the jumper. There was less breathing room when he was directly between the two ships, but the darts were slowly refinding their positions and none were close enough to be a concern. John checked his watch and tried to calculate whether Ronon or Teyla could have woken up yet. Ronon, maybe. It depended how many times he'd been hit. But he was okay. They both were. They had to be.
"Okay," Rodney said. "I think I have the signal synced. Do we have a plan?"
"Yeah," John said, because they had one shot to get this right. "I want you to land the Hive."
Rodney looked up. "On the planet? That's not exactly subtle."
"Our cover's going to be blown anyway, and if you land it near the gate, Ronon and Teyla can make a run for it."
"Ah," Rodney said. "Good thinking. And maybe I can even figure out a way to open their cell."
"You can do that?"
Rodney bent over his screen. "I don't know. I don't have access to the Hive's internal sensors or logs, so I can't tell where they're being kept."
"Look, just land the damn thing. Then worry about getting them free."
Rodney's fingers started moving again, and John forced himself to look away. This was the part where it was all Rodney's job, and he hated not having anything to do. He always had. Which — belated realization, here — went a long way to explain why he pestered Rodney to hurry in situations like this.
"Ronon, Teyla, come in," he tried, because they were still in radio range, and he needed something to do, even if the Wraith had probably taken their comms when they took their weapons.
"Colonel," Teyla's voice came back, immediate and clear. "It is good to hear your voice."
"Whoa," John couldn't stop himself from saying. "They didn't take your radio?"
"They did," Teyla said. "I have been carrying a spare on missions for some time, now."
Right, because Teyla was Teyla, and also damn smart. "That's good thinking," John said. "Are you okay?"
"Ronon and I are fine," Teyla said.
"Okay, look," John said. "We're working on a way to get you out of there. Rodney's going to try to land the hive."
"We will be ready," Teyla said.
"I'm in," Rodney said from beside him. "I have control of the helm."
On the screen in front of them, the rogue Queen's hive had begun to move. "Go easy," John said. "Re-entry's a bitch, and those things aren't built for tight maneuvers."
"I'm aware of that," Rodney said through clenched teeth. On the screen the hive was moving faster, turning toward the planet.
"The Queen is quite agitated," Teyla said in John's ear. "I believe she is trying to regain control."
"Well, of course she's trying to regain control," Rodney said. "That's why I don't know how much time we have!"
"Just fly the hive, McKay," John said.
"I'm flying!" Rodney said, and he was. The rogue hive had passed the second hive, now, and was headed for a decaying orbit.
"That's a good angle," John said. "You should have enough power to ease her in."
Rodney's jaw seemed to relax a bit. "It's pretty simple physics."
"Teyla, you're starting atmospheric entry," John said. "We're may lose contact for a few minutes."
"I understand," Teyla said. "I cannot tell if the Queen is having any success with her efforts."
"We're working as fast as Rodney can," John said. "Talk to you when you're down."
The hive was entering the atmosphere now; John could see the glow of heat as it slipped toward the planet's horizon.
"Wait, wait, wait," Rodney said. "I'm losing the signal."
"Damn it," John said, because he should have realized this would happen. "The planet's blocking it. Hang on."
He hit the acceleration hard enough that they felt it through the inertial dampeners, angling the jumper toward the planet's pole, perpendicular to the hive's orbital descent. When the hive finally came back in view, it was already climbing back out of the planet's gravity well.
"McKay," John said. "Can you get it back?"
"I'm on it," Rodney said, and he didn't need to say anything more, because the hive was dropping toward the planet again. Dropping too damn fast.
"Watch the angle," John said.
"I'm watching it!" Rodney said. "I'm having to redo all of my calculations on the fly."
"Don't worry about getting it near the gate," John said. "We can always pick Teyla and Ronon up on the surface."
"Too late," Rodney said, and fuck, he was right, and the angle was all wrong.
"Pull it up," John said.
"I'm trying," Rodney said, but the Hive ship was re-entering the atmosphere already, too steep and too fast, and there was no way the hull was going to hold. "I'm trying," Rodney said, and tapped furiously at his screen. "I can't . . . damn it."
"Get the nose up," John said.
"No, that's not what I . . . wait. There! Pull up the HUD."
"What?" John said, because that didn't even make sense.
"I just patched control of the Hive into the jumper. You should be able to do anything I can do. If you pull up the HUD you'll get—"
But John was already there, eyes locked on the display that gave him velocity, attitude, maneuvering thrusters, and all he had to do was . . . right. He fired the Hive's forward thrusters and tipped the nose up. It was slow to respond, but it had power, a lot of power. Enough for a nice, slow descent — well, slow enough to avoid plasma flares. He battled gravity for a few tense moments, and started to win. It helped that he didn't care if he burned through their power supply.
"That's good, that's good," Rodney said. "Watch the stress on the hull, there."
"I'm on it," John said, and he watched it all the way down, easing up on the velocity as he went. "Teyla, Ronon, do you read?"
"We are here," Teyla said.
"We're about to land you near the gate," John said. "McKay's going to try to figure out how to get your door open."
"There is no need," Teyla said. "Ronon and I have escaped the cell."
Wow, they were getting good at that. "Nice work," John said. "Get ready to run."
"They can't just waltz off a Hive ship and dial the gate," Rodney said. "We're going to need some sort of distraction."
"If you could release our cell door, could you not release the others?" Teyla asked.
"That's good," John said, even as he was concentrating on slowing the rate of descent. "Rodney, can you do that?"
"Actually, opening them all is significantly easier than opening just one," Rodney said. "Shall I release the cocoons, as well?"
"Do it," John said. "Set them all free. Teyla, you're going to need to dial one of the backup alpha sites rather than Atlantis."
"Of course," Teyla said.
The hive was no more than twenty feet off the ground when he started to lose control. At first he thought it was a glitch in the interface, but then he lost another set of thrusters. "Rodney," he started, but Rodney said, "I see it, I see it."
"Shut it down," John said. "Shut the whole damn hive down."
"Cells and cocoons are open," Rodney said, "I can't shut the engines off. It'll fall!"
"Do it," John said. "Teyla, Ronon, brace yourselves."
They were too far away to see it happen onscreen, and John lost all sensors when Rodney sent the command, but they could hear it on the comm, the tremendous crash as the Hive fell the last twenty feet to the landing site.
"Teyla, come in!"
"We are unhurt, thanks to your warning," Teyla said.
"We're losing control of the hive. Get the hell out of there!"
"We are almost out. The hive is in chaos. There are people everywhere."
"Good," John said. "Rodney?"
"There's nothing more I can do," Rodney said. "As soon as they reboot the system, they're going to have complete control."
"Then we better—" John broke off as the jumper's proximity alarm sounded. "What the hell?" But he was already turning the jumper, dodging out of the way of the oncoming dart. "Tell me they can't see us."
"They can't see us. They must have followed the hive." But as Rodney spoke, Wraith weapons fire crackled across their bow and the dart exploded in front of them. "We have to get out of here."
"Working on it," John said, as he gathered enough velocity to dodge through the burgeoning battle. Darts were firing on darts, and above them . . .
"Oh, God, it's the second hive."
"Yeah, I noticed that," John said.
"It's powering weapons," Rodney said.
"Noticed that, too." He was already pushing the acceleration as hard as he could, hard enough to press them into their seats again. "The damn cloak better be working, Rodney."
"It's working! They can't possibly see us."
"Unless they've upgraded their sensors."
"John," Teyla's voice came through on his comm, and he hadn't forgotten about her, he'd just been a little distracted. "We are about to go through the gate. The hive appears to be taking off. You could use the distraction to get through the gate yourselves."
"Thanks, we'd love to," John said, "but we're a little busy right now. You two go ahead. We'll meet you back at Atlantis."
"I understand," Teyla said. "Good luck, John." And then her radio cut off.
"Sheppard!" Rodney said, and John saw it, a couple of darts straight ahead. He dodged left and around them, and then his screen lit up again.
"They're firing," Rodney said, but his voice sounded like wonder. "The second hive is firing on the one we landed."
He was right. The grounded hive had barely achieved lift-off, and was taking hit after hit, lighting up with a line of explosions down the whole left side of the hull.
"It's returning fire!" Rodney said.
John dodged some more darts, one of which was trailing smoke, and shot out into the clear, tracing a long arc until he was facing the two hive ships once again. The second hive was still closing on the first, weapons blazing.
And then the first hive blew. It was a big explosion, lighting up the surface of the planet and producing a plume of black smoke. But the second hive didn't pull up, just held its course, aimed straight for the planet.
And then John saw it: the hive's engines were offline, damaged in the fight. It was moving under inertia alone, headed straight into the gravity well.
Rodney was watching with his mouth open, speechless for once. The hive hit the atmosphere like a giant arrow, engulfing itself in a cloud of plasma that blazed the full length of the ship as it accelerated toward the planet's surface. But it didn't break up until it hit the site of the previous explosion, and then there was another fireball, even bigger than the first.
"Wow," Rodney said, his eyes still wide. "Why'd they do that?"
Around them there was nothing but debris and the flickering remains of a hyperspace window where the last remaining cruisers had fled.
John shrugged. "It's a bug-eat-bug world. Can't show any weakness."
"Which the first hive did, by succumbing to our virus. Huh." Rodney turned to look at John. "You think we'll be able to use it again?"
"No telling," John said. "A few of them got away. Depends how much intel they got."
"Right," Rodney said, but he looked cheerful as he turned to look out the windshield. "What do you say we go home?"
"Sounds good to me."
There was only one small problem with the plan. The gate was gone. Well, it was still there, according to Rodney's scan. It was just buried under several hundred tons of debris.
"We could really use an Asgard beam right now," Rodney said. "Or a shovel."
"You can't rig something?" John asked.
"Not a chance."
"We could dig with our bare hands?"
Rodney glowered at the pile of rubble below the jumper. "It would take years. And it's still too hot to touch."
"Okay," John said, because it was starting to look like this really wasn't an option. "So where's the nearest functional gate?"
"Already calculating," Rodney said, his brow furrowed in concentration. And then, "Huh. It's actually not that bad. Two and a half weeks by jumper. That's practically next door."
"Two and a half weeks?" John said, because the prospect of two and a half weeks alone in a jumper with Rodney — a Rodney who didn't remember him — was pretty much his idea of a personal hell.
"Yup," Rodney said, but he didn't seem the least bit distressed. Apparently he'd forgotten all about the thing with the jacket, whatever the hell it had meant. "It's quite doable, really. We have plenty of rations, and we've had more people in the jumper for longer, or weren't you there when the Midway station blew?"
"I was there," John said.
"I thought so," Rodney said. "I'm beginning to get a sense for the Sheppard-shaped holes in my memory. And hey, just think, this will mean plenty of time for the two of us to, ah, talk."
"Great," John said, because it wasn't like he had a choice. But he could do this. Somehow. He'd faced hopeless odds plenty of times before. "You got the coordinates?"
"I'm uploading them to the jumper now."
The planet shrank below them as John told the jumper to take the shortest viable course. And then they were in space, with nothing to do but stare at the screen and the star field in front of them and come down off the adrenaline high.
"We work well together," Rodney said, apropos of nothing and pretty much everything.
"Yeah," John said. "Thanks for giving me control of the hive back there."
"Oh, you know," Rodney said. "I figured you'd have a better idea what you were doing."
"That was quick thinking," John said, and Rodney beamed.
"It was, wasn't it?" His eyes went speculative. "So, ah, I suppose this is what it was all based on? The thing between us, I mean."
"Pretty much," John said, and if his stomach felt a little weird about the thing between us, well, that wasn't Rodney's problem.
Twenty-five minutes into their two-and-a-half-week journey, it became clear that John needed something to keep himself from climbing the walls. Not that Rodney was doing anything — that was exactly the problem. He wasn't doing anything. It was enough to make a person want to shoot something.
John kept his eyes carefully on the screen in front of him as he said, "We should set up a duty roster."
Rodney twisted in his seat and eyed John like he'd just said they should tear off their clothes and dance naked on the DHD. "A duty roster? Are you kidding me? There are only two of us. Besides, I thought you were a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy."
It was amazing how much Rodney had picked up in a week and four days. "We're going to be traveling at top speed through unfamiliar space," John said. "We need someone awake at all times. It'll work best if we stagger our shifts; one of us sleeps eight hours, then the other does."
"So, eight hours on, eight hours off, eight hours of shared duty?"
Right. Too bad they couldn't sleep twelve hours. "It's the easiest solution," John argued.
"Fine," Rodney said. "Do you want the first shift, or shall I?"
"I'll take it," John said, because as exhausting as the last few hours had been, there was no way he was ready to sleep.
"Okay," Rodney said. "Shall I get us something to eat?"
It was weird, just the two of them in the jumper. Weirder than anything that had happened since Rodney had lost his memory, because John kept slipping into a mindset where it was comfortable, where he'd forgotten entirely that Rodney didn't remember him. They ate an MRE apiece, swapping desserts companionably, and if John hadn't forcibly reminded himself every five minutes, he would have thought it was just like old times.
Which was probably why it caught him completely off guard when Rodney tipped his chair back and said, "So tell me about yourself."
"Jesus, McKay," John said. "I'm not some girl you just met in a bar."
"What?" Rodney said, his cheeks bright pink. "That wasn't . . . well, obviously, it wasn't a line. I wouldn't . . . oh, right, that's a joke."
John gave him an eyebrow of acknowledgement and leaned over the controls, pretending to check the long range sensors.
"Oh, come on," Rodney said, not deflected, because he was Rodney, and it took a lot more than an inappropriate joke to distract him. "Surely you can tell me something. Something inane if you must, like your favorite color or the name of your childhood dog."
"I don't have a favorite color," John said, which was only the truth. "And my dog was named Bear. My dad's lawyer ran her over when I was eight."
"See?" Rodney said. "Now I know something I didn't know before."
It was truer than Rodney knew, because John was pretty sure he hadn't told anyone about Bear since he was nine. "She wasn't much of a dog," he said, not even sure why he was still talking. "She had one stupid ear that stuck out sideways and she was always licking people's faces." His dad had hated that. Funny how he hadn't thought about that in years, not even when the old man died.
"I had a cat like that," Rodney said. "Well, not that he licked faces or had funny ears, but everyone else thought he was ugly. He wasn't even very smart, but I loved the little rascal. I would have taken him to college with me, but he died that summer. Jeannie was heartbroken." He glanced over at John. "Ah, Jeannie's my little sister."
"I've met her," John said. "Three times."
"Right, of course," Rodney said. "Huh. Maybe I should ask her about you."
Jesus. It was one thing to know Rodney had been asking about him behind his back, but another entirely to hear him talk about it. "Look, shouldn't you be trying to sleep?"
"Oh," Rodney said. "Right. I suppose this conversation will keep."
Yeah, John thought, but didn't say. That's what I'm afraid of.
"This is stupid," John said, because if he had to put up with eight more hours of tell me about yourself, he was going to consider a spacewalk, just to get some breathing room.
Rodney looked up from the MRE that was his mid-afternoon snack. John was counting his as breakfast. "Do you know of a better way for me to get to know you? Because the alternative is leaving me in the dark, and I'm pretty sure even you wouldn't see that as fair."
Crap, he was right. "You don't think Zelenka can . . . ?"
Rodney finished slurping the bit of spaghetti that was hanging out of his mouth and then shook his head. "I think we have to assume it's never going to get fixed."
"You're giving up?" John said, and the beef stew, which he'd chosen purely because it came with coffee, settled in his stomach like lead. "Never thought you were a quitter."
"I'm not quitting," Rodney said, but he wasn't looking at John. "But if I haven't found it and Zelenka hasn't found it, there may not be a pattern storage device to find. There's no point in wasting time looking for something that isn't there."
John didn't say anything, couldn't say anything, because it felt like Rodney was giving up on him. Like he didn't care if he ever remembered, and that was just, yeah.
"Anyway," Rodney said, "it's not like I can't figure a few things out on my own. Like why I wanted to forget you in the first place."
John had to swallow hard to get down the lump of mashed potatoes that had turned to sawdust in his throat. "Care to share with the class?" He'd meant it to come out light, but it sounded as strangled as he felt.
"Oh, come on," Rodney said. "There's no point in playing dumb. And anyway, I'm not asking you about that. I just want to know the normal, everyday things. I mean, you're the one who keeps saying we were friends. What's so difficult about sharing the little things a friend would know about another friend?"
"Like my favorite color and the name of my childhood dog?" John asked, and yes, that was sarcastic, but Rodney was being impossible.
"Among other things," Rodney said, blithely ignoring John's tone of voice. "Hey, maybe you can tell me what we have in common. I mean, apart from saving the galaxy together every other week or so."
John's mouth was strangely dry. "We, uh, do stuff together. You know. Friendly stuff." There had to be something he could say, something innocuous. "We eat together."
"Like this?" Rodney said, gesturing with his spoon.
"Not exactly," John said. "You don't usually grill me."
"I can see why," Rodney said. "You're worse than your mission reports."
"Look, this is not how we got to know each other, okay? We just . . . you know. Did stuff together. Explored the city, went through the gate—"
"Tested the personal shield."
"Exactly," John said. "We never sat around and just. . . talked."
Rodney's eyebrows made a skeptical arc across his forehead. "Never?"
"Okay, not never. I guess we talked a little when you were, uh, with that thing in your head. And the time you almost ascended."
Rodney's eyes went narrow. "So I have to be on my deathbed before you'll open up?"
John tried to think what he'd said then, whether he'd told Rodney anything important. He was pretty sure it had never been about the words. "No," John said. "I just . . ." Feel like taking a spacewalk right now. Spacesuit optional. "Okay, fine. We'll do this your way." He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and took a deep breath. "I like football. You like hockey. I like Ferris wheels. You like funnel cakes. I like Evel Knievel. You like Batman. We both hate clowns."
Rodney frowned. "Clowns? We've talked about clowns?"
"They're creepy," John said, and plunged onward. "You dream about whales eating you. I dream about . . . " Okay, he'd started that sentence. Now he had to finish it. "Being fed on by those damn iratus bugs."
"I read that report," Rodney said quietly.
"I hate those things," John said. "Is this helping at all?"
"I don't know," Rodney said.
"Great," John said, because if he was going through this for nothing, he really was going to take that spacewalk. He gathered the remains of his MRE and pushed himself to his feet. "You have control of the jumper. I need to use the head."
"What? Oh," Rodney said, and slid over to the pilot's seat, looking a little pink.
John made his way to the rear of the jumper and put the MRE into the recycling slot. The sanitary facilities pulled out of the wall like a drawer — convenient but not exactly private. Fortunately, Rodney didn't turn around while John did his business.
The back of the jumper was nice and tidy; he'd packed up his sleeping bag as soon as he'd been done with it. There was no excuse to stay back here. No excuse for anything. John rubbed his face with his hands and made his way slowly back to the cockpit.
Rodney glanced back over his shoulder, and then turned back to the windshield. "I'm sorry," he said after awhile.
John slipped into the co-pilot's seat. "It's fine."
"This is hard for you, isn't it?" Rodney said. "I mean, really hard."
John rolled his shoulders back, one at a time. "I'm not really that great at, you know, talking. About myself."
"I noticed," Rodney said.
John dared a sideways look. Rodney was staring out the windshield, but his expression seemed more contemplative than sour.
"You're gonna figure it out," John said. "Even if Zelenka can't. You just need a couple of days when no one interrupts you."
"Maybe," Rodney said, and stared out the windshield some more. Silence settled between them, awkward and merciful.
"So, seriously," Rodney said finally. "Evel Knievel?"
John jerked his head up. Rodney's face was screwed up in mock disbelief, so like the old Rodney that John didn't even care that they'd had this conversation before. "Hey," he said. "He kept his word. When he said he was going to do something, he did it."
"Yeah, well, maybe he should have reconsidered that. How many bones did he break? Oh, don't tell me. All of them."
John grinned. "But he lived to tell the tale."
"Barely," Rodney said. "At least Batman fights bad guys."
"You do realize he's not real, right?"
"Oh, please," Rodney said. "Like you didn't want to live in Gotham City just as much as I did."
Warmth pooled in John's gut. "You remembered something?"
"No," Rodney said. "It's painfully obvious. I suppose that's one more thing we have in common."
"You were more into the TV show," John said, and it was weird, but the warm feeling didn't go away. "I was more into the comic books."
"The TV show had Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt."
"So you've said." John leaned back in his seat. "Of course, you can't sell old copies of a TV show when your dad disowns you."
"True," Rodney mused, and then his eyes narrowed. "Wait, your dad disowned you? What the hell for?"
John crossed his ankles casually. He could do this. It wasn't like he was giving anything important away, and the fact that Rodney didn't know he'd never mentioned any of this stuff was weirdly freeing. "Actually, he didn't. Surprised the hell out of me when they read the will. Surprised my brother, too."
John nodded. "I never sold my comic books, either. Left them behind when I moved out. If anyone has them now, it's my brother. Think he knows what they're worth?"
But Rodney was frowning. "How old were you when you moved out?"
"Seventeen," John admitted. "My dad decided that we'd both be happier if I, you know, lived somewhere else."
"Wait, let me guess," Rodney said, and John's heart pounded suddenly to life, because this was dangerous territory, and apparently he'd been lulled into complacency by all the talk of comic books. "He caught you kissing someone he didn't approve of?"
It had been worse than that, but John wasn't about to go into details. "Something like that."
"Huh," Rodney said. "That was Neanderthal of him. I mean, not that my own parents were any better. Of course, I made sure they never caught me kissing a boy, but then again, my childhood hero wasn't a daredevil."
John could feel the blood in his ears, hot and quick, because how the hell Rodney had gotten from kicked out of the house to kissing a boy, he had no idea, and he'd never told Rodney anything like this — hell, he'd never told anyone that story, not in years. Not since he'd joined the Air Force for damned sure, and that was a lot of water under the bridge.
"Of course, the truth is, I never kissed any boys until I went to college," Rodney said. "Not that I wasn't interested, but girls are great, too, and April Bingham practically threw herself at me, so, I mean, who was I to say no?"
The heat spread down John's neck and into his chest. He hadn't realized Rodney had meant himself, too, and Jesus Christ, how was it possible that they had this in common, and he'd never had a clue?
"Certainly not the Rodney McKay I know," John muttered, and whoa, that was right. He'd never heard Rodney turn anyone down, and that meant . . . Jesus. What if he'd actually — some night when he'd been restless and horny — would Rodney have said no to him? Or would they have fallen into bed together, would they have touched and sucked and grappled, would they have regretted it in the morning?
"Oh, please," Rodney said. "You're just jealous because I always get the girl." He tilted his chin, his eyes narrowing. "Or are you seeing someone now? Someone no one has bothered to mention to me?"
John shook his head, and God, he was hot all over now. "I'm not . . . I mean, I'm single. Divorced," he added, which was stupid, because Rodney hadn't even asked that.
"I don't know why I'm surprised," Rodney said. "How many hearts have you broken, anyway?"
"I didn't break her heart," John said, calmly as he could with his heart thumping in his chest. "It just didn't work out."
"Trust me," Rodney said. "You broke her heart."
"Hey," John said. "She was the one who left me."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Like that's proof of anything."
There was obviously no point in arguing, since Rodney had never so much as met Nancy, and even if he had, he would undoubtedly have forgotten all about her when he forgot John. "It was a long time ago," John said. "She'd definitely over me now."
Rodney lifted his chin. "Well, that's good to know. I'd hate to think it's impossible." And that was weird, really weird, because what the hell did Rodney care? He couldn't possibly mean . . . unless he actually . . . Jesus. But he didn't even know John, and John was pretty damn sure he hadn't been interested before, because it would have been obvious, wouldn't it? This was Rodney.
Only he hadn't known Rodney was bi. He'd never even thought of Rodney as a possibility before. And the times he'd pictured himself with Rodney it had always been with a weird sort of guilt that Rodney would be appalled if he knew. And now, maybe he wouldn't. Or maybe he would, if he really thought John was some sort of love-em-and-leave-em type. Crap.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked, and John jerked his head around. Oh, right. They'd been having a conversation.
"Fine," he said, elaborately casual. Just trying not to imagine my mouth on your dick. "You want me to take over? You could always . . ." There had to be something Rodney could do that would distract him long enough for John to cool off. ". . . work on figuring out how they overrode your virus so fast."
"Hey," Rodney said. "I warned you they'd figure it out. There was simply no way to predict how fast they'd do it."
"That was nowhere near an hour," John said.
"I never promised you an hour! And anyway, it's possible they clued in because of a little glitch in the . . . huh." Rodney was out of the pilot's seat and reaching for his laptop, and John took his place gratefully, trying not to think about how warm the seat was or the fact that his ass was now exactly where Rodney's had been, mere moments ago.
Because this was fucking stupid, and ten minutes ago he hadn't even been thinking of Rodney like this, and what the fuck was his problem, anyway? Rodney hadn't said anything to indicate he was interested, now or before, and John really needed to get a grip before he went and did something idiotic.
The virus problem kept Rodney busy for the rest of their shared up-time. Mostly busy, anyway. John spent the time trying to talk some sense into his dick.
The only problem was, nothing seemed to work. He'd gone five and a half years thinking Rodney was straight, and he'd been weirdly comfortable with that. But the thing about knowing something was that you couldn't unknow it, and Rodney wasn't helping at all. He kept making these soft little sounds, grunts and hmmms and oohs, and it really wasn't John's fault if he couldn't stop wondering if this was what Rodney sounded like when he was having sex.
Or, no, Rodney would be a talker. He'd keep a running commentary going; hell, he'd tell John exactly what to do, and there was nothing hot about that, except for the part where there totally was.
"Do you mind?" Rodney said, still scowling at his screen.
"What?" John said, because he hadn't been doing a damn thing other than staring out the screen and pretending the jumper actually needed him there. Unless Rodney had somehow learned how to read minds again.
Rodney lifted his head. "Look, I realize that flying is an orgasmic experience for you, but do you have to make it obvious to everyone within a fifty-foot radius?"
John's ears went hot again, and he only just managed to stop from adjusting himself. "You do realize the jumper's only twenty feet long, right?"
"Whatever," Rodney waved a hand. "Can't you just, I don't know, refrain from the little moans? I'm trying to work, here."
Him? Jesus, Rodney was the one who sounded like he was having a party in his pants over there, only if John said that, Rodney would know he'd been listening. Listening like that. "If my breathing is bothering you so much, you can always go work in the rear compartment."
"Oh, is that what this is about?" Rodney swiveled to face him, his laptop screen forgotten. "You want the cockpit all to yourself?"
"I'm not the one complaining," John said reasonably, and made a show of fiddling with some completely unnecessary controls.
"You're also not the one with work to do," Rodney said, and turned back to his screen with a huff.
John leaned back in his chair and breathed through his nose. Rodney was probably terrible in bed, anyway. He'd be demanding and selfish and . . . right. There was no point in thinking about the way Keller's face had always seemed all soft and happy when she'd smiled at Rodney across the breakfast table. How eager she had always been to drag Rodney away from the lab in the evening, and how Rodney had once mentioned that they'd lasted longer than they probably should have because neither of them had wanted to give up the sex.
Right, he wasn't thinking about that. And anyway, Rodney could still be bad with men. He couldn't have much experience, no matter how many guys he'd kissed in college. He'd probably be sloppy and squeamish as well as bossy and demanding, and no matter what people said, inexperience was not sexy; it was just bumped noses and gag reflexes and missed orgasms. Seriously, John had no desire to show Rodney the ropes. Not even a little bit.
He shifted a little in his seat, careful not to make any noise while he surreptitiously gave his cock a little more room. The jumper's chronometer said 1700, Atlantis time. Which meant he had only . . . five more hours to go.
Five more hours of agony.
John woke with a groan. He wasn't sure what he'd been dreaming about, but whatever it was, it must have been good. He kicked out of his sleeping bag and stumbled over to the head, and yes, it took a few extra minutes before he got anything out.
It was day two without a shower and he was getting kind of ripe, so he used the (limited, but recyclable) water supply to clean up and shave. Not that it meant anything; he sure as hell was going to be watching the noises he made around Mr. Hypersensitive. He just didn't want to have a beard by the time they got back to Atlantis.
When his stomach was making plaintive noises and he couldn't stall any longer, he grabbed a bottle of water and a random MRE, then hit the control to open the bulkhead door, only to find Rodney in the copilot's seat, busily tapping away on his laptop.
"What the hell, McKay? I thought you were flying this thing."
Rodney looked up. He hadn't shaved, but the two-day stubble was actually not a bad look on him. "It's ridiculous to sit in that chair for eight hours straight, staring at nothing," he said. "I've got better things to do with my time."
John slid into the pilot's seat and brought up the HUD, but something was . . . "You've rigged an autopilot? I didn't think that was possible."
"Just something I coded in my spare time," Rodney said. "I've linked the long range sensors to the proximity alarm. If anything comes anywhere near our projected trajectory, we'll know long before we need to worry about it."
"Wow," John said, because credit was due where credit was due. "This is cool." And it was, except for the part where it meant he'd gone from having nothing to do to having absolutely nothing to do.
Great, well, at least he was still hungry, so he could stave off boredom for another fifteen minutes. He dumped out his MRE and set the entree to heating while he broke into the snack crackers and spread them with peanut butter. He was still ridiculously aware of Rodney seated next to him, but he carefully didn't look up when Rodney shut his computer and headed for the rear compartment. Rodney didn't close the bulkhead doors, which meant John could hear him doing his thing back there — using the head, washing his hands, then fussing with something that made a soft rustling noise. It sounded like a sleeping bag, only it couldn't be, unless Rodney hadn't slept during his own downtime and wanted to take a nap.
Right, well, John wouldn't mind a little less togetherness. Actually, it would be great. He wouldn't miss the noises Rodney made, or the distracting presence of his body, or even the sardonic curve of his eyebrows. Seriously, John was fine on his own. Alone would be relaxing, and right now, he needed all the relaxation he could get.
"Are you planning to finish that sometime this century?"
John dropped his spoon back into the pouch and twisted to see Rodney leaning against the bulkhead, arms crossed over his chest.
"What the hell are you doing back there?"
"Look," Rodney said, "just finish up and get over here."
That couldn't possibly be what it sounded like. John took the last bite of his pasta, drained his coffee, and checked the HUD one more time. Everything looked monotonously fine, so he got up to go see what the hell Rodney wanted.
"What is this, some sort of . . . Jesus," John said, because Rodney had spread out not one but two sleeping bags, one on top of the other. Unzipped, like a double bed.
"Oh, come on," Rodney said. "Don't tell me this isn't what you've been thinking about for the past two days." And he slid his hand around the back of John's neck and pulled their mouths together.
John flailed, grabbing the bulkhead for balance, because Rodney was kissing him. With lips and tongue and stubble, and Christ, he'd shaved and Rodney hadn't, which meant — okay, John had no idea what it meant, but Rodney's hand was pushing up under his shirt, and this was, this was . . . holy shit. Apparently Rodney wasn't completely inexperienced with guys, because he was a much better kisser than John had expected, and John was, he wanted . . . oh, crap.
"Rodney," he panted, jerking back. "What the fuck?"
Rodney made an incredulous face. "What's the matter, am I not being obvious enough? Or has it been so long you've forgotten what to do?"
"Christ," John said, and it was a good thing he was still braced against the bulkhead, because his knees were feeling strangely wobbly.
"Seriously," Rodney said. "You want this. You totally want this, right?"
It was the only thing he'd been thinking about for the past twenty-four hours. "It's a crappy idea," John said.
Rodney's chin lifted. "Is it? Well how the hell am I supposed to know that? I don't remember, and you . . . you won't tell me anything unless I drag it out of you. So maybe you can explain. Why would it be such a terrible idea, hmm?"
John clenched his jaw and forced the words out. "You don't want this. You wouldn't have wanted this. You were happy when you forgot about me."
But Rodney just wrinkled his nose. "Yes, yes, I told you, or were you not listening? I'm sure it was ugly, but you know what? The advantage of having forgotten is that I can move beyond all that. And if I can do it, you can, too. Unless there's something you want to tell me?"
John cocked his head. "Something like . . . ?"
Rodney sniffed. "Yeah, I thought not. Lucky for you, I have other priorities." And he started to work on the buttons of John's shirt.
"Rodney," John said. Rodney's hands on his shirt were making his stomach do flip-flops. "McKay!"
"What?" Rodney pulled the last button free and looked up at him, mutinous and stubborn. "Oh, come on. You can't give me one good reason why we shouldn't do this, and seriously, I think you owe me this much. It is completely unfair that you remember and I don't. I think I deserve some new memories."
John closed his eyes because, okay, yes, it was unfair. It was totally unfair that Rodney wanted this only now when he couldn't remember whatever had been freaking him out. "We're going to get back," John said quietly, "and you're going to figure out the device, and when you do, you're going to remember why you didn't want this."
"Yes, well, I'm also going to remember that I was the one who asked for it." Rodney slid his hands up the front of John's t-shirt and pushed his uniform shirt off his shoulders. "John, please. I know you still, well, okay, I don't, because I don't remember, and I don't even . . ." His voice faltered and he looked down, his hands slackening on John's shoulders like all the bravado had suddenly drained out of him. "I really wish I could remember."
Rodney looked so lost and vulnerable that something inside John broke. It wasn't any more right than it had been a minute ago, but he couldn't . . . he didn't know how to fight anymore.
Rodney's lips were warm and soft, and they parted under John's with a grateful sigh. John braced himself to hold back, because whatever Rodney did or didn't remember, this was their first time, and he wasn't going to screw it up by asking for too much too fast. But Rodney apparently hadn't gotten the memo, because he pressed John up against the bulkhead, his hands eager and a little desperate, his stubble a fierce burn against John's cheek.
John tried to reach for Rodney, but his arms were trapped by the uniform shirt Rodney had pushed half off him. He squirmed against the bulkhead, and Rodney took that as an invitation to press closer, lips migrating down his neck, erection hard against his thigh. "Rodney," John said, and it came out all breathy. "Hey."
John smiled, giddy with want and strangely shy. "My shirt," he managed. "I'm kind of stuck."
Rodney lifted his head, "Let's get you out of that, shall we?"
Somehow getting out of one shirt became getting out of two, and of course it was only fair if Rodney got out of his shirt, too, and then John was cupping his hands around Rodney's shoulders and nuzzling the space where his skin formed a hollow just above his collarbone, and God, God, he should have done this ages ago, when Rodney still knew him. Except Rodney wouldn't have wanted him then, and the thought twisted bitter with the sweet in his chest, but he didn't stop, didn't pull away, just pressed his mouth to Rodney's neck and ran his hands down Rodney's sides and breathed, while Rodney rocked against his hip and made low, needy noises.
"C'mon," John said, with a jerk of his chin toward the sleeping bags, and he tugged, or Rodney did, and they ended up on the floor, maybe a little gracelessly, but Rodney didn't seem to be complaining. He was too busy getting out of his pants, and John didn't need more hint than that; he stripped off his own pants as fast as he could.
Rodney looked good. Damn good, from the eager light in his eyes to the plumpness of his cock to the pink circle John's mouth had left on his neck. It felt so raw and new, seeing him like this. It wasn't something John had ever expected, not in five long years, and it was almost enough to make him grateful for . . . no. No, it wasn't worth it, not by a long shot. But it wasn't like John had a choice, so he was taking what he could get, and what he got was Rodney, sprawled out, watching him. Waiting.
Yeah, well, the waiting time was over, and John wasn't about to waste another minute. He braced one hand on the sleeping bag and the other on Rodney's hip and bent to suck Rodney's cock in.
"Jesus!" Rodney's hips jerked up, but John was ready for him, and Rodney's cock tasted of sweat and desire and all the things they'd never talked about.
John sucked hard, and Rodney arched against him, gasping and babbling, too fast for John to make out any words, except there were a fair number of "oh God's" in there, so he had to be doing something right. Rodney's cock fit in his mouth perfectly, and he toyed with his gag reflex a few times, just to hear the stream of babble change to moans.
God he'd wanted this. He'd wanted it for days, weeks, quite possibly years, only he'd never let himself actually think that, because once he had, there would have been no going back, and no. No, he wasn't thinking about that now, either, because he wasn't going into what might happen if Rodney got his memory back, and there was no point in borrowing trouble when Rodney's cock was in his mouth here and now.
It was enough. It was more than enough, and what was amazing was that he'd only been at it for a couple of minutes and Rodney's thighs were already starting to shake. It was heady, and not just as a tribute to his technique, because John wasn't that vain, and anyway, he knew no amount of pure technique got that kind of reaction.
Rodney wanted him. This badly, after less than two weeks, and it didn't mean he'd wanted him before, didn't mean anything of the sort, but John couldn't help thinking, feeling . . . damn it.
He sucked harder, leaning against Rodney's leg to stop the shaking, and Rodney whimpered. "John, what are you . . . ?"
Blowing your mind, John thought, and slipped a knuckle behind Rodney's balls to apply just the right kind of pressure.
Rodney jerked, arching up off the sleeping bag, his eyes wide and stunned, and then he was coming, making tiny, helpless noises as he flooded John's mouth.
John swallowed it all, then released Rodney's softening cock and sat up, grinning down at Rodney's still-quivering form. So maybe he was feeling a little smug, but it was a hell of a long time since he'd broken anyone this badly, and he was going to enjoy it.
"Oh, my God," Rodney said, still flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling of the jumper. "What the hell was that?"
"Where I come from, we call that a blow job," John said, and didn't even bother to suppress his self-satisfied smile as he leaned back on his hands.
"But you just, I can't believe you . . . " Rodney's eyes narrowed, and he propped himself up on his elbows. "Okay, was that supposed to be some sort of joke? Or were we . . . oh, God, don't tell me. That was why we broke up?"
John's smugness popped like a soap bubble. "What?"
"Well, since you weren't telling me, I was assuming it was some sort of thoroughly ridiculous argument, but if we were sexually incompatible, that would explain it, too."
"Jesus, McKay," John said. His heart was pounding and his palms were sweating and his erection was rapidly becoming a distant memory. "We're not . . . look, you've got it all wrong. We didn't break up. We can't have broken up, because we were never together. We never even had sex. I told you, you wouldn't have wanted it. Besides, I didn't even know you were bi."
"Seriously?" Rodney sat all the way up, staring at him. "You mean I . . . we never even . . . ? Then why did I leave my jacket in your room?"
"We were playing chess," John said. "I told you, we were friends." And fuck, fuck, he couldn't believe Rodney had thought that, but it made sense, now, especially the part where Rodney had acted like John was hiding something. "Look, I wouldn't have lied to you. I thought you understood."
"Wow," Rodney said. "Well, this changes things."
"Yes," John said. "It does." And he reached for his pants.
But Rodney's face fell. "Wait, wait, what are you doing?"
John pulled his boxers out of the pants and got one foot in the proper leg hole. "What do you think?" He got the other leg in and yanked them up.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Rodney said. "I didn't mean it had to change this."
"Yeah," John said, grabbing his pants, "well, the old you would kind of disagree with that."
"Oh, come on," Rodney said, and his hand closed around John's wrist. Not tight, not anything John couldn't break, but he was apparently far enough gone that it stopped him. "You don't know that. I mean, not unless I told you in so many words. I didn't tell you, did I?"
John looked down. "You never said a goddamned thing."
"See?" Rodney said, letting go to gesture with both hands. "You don't know either."
"Great," John said. "Because that really clears things up."
"Okay, let's look at this logically," Rodney said. "You don't know what I wanted before, because you aren't me. Also, you're not a telepath. I don't know what I wanted before, because that stupid device stole my memories. And yes, yes, obviously there was some stress involved, and I haven't entirely figured that part out yet. But here's the point: I want this now. And I told you: we need to face the fact that those memories may very well be gone for good."
"No, hear me out. I was willing to overlook an apparently very ugly break-up for this. I'm not going to worry about some mythical stress that I don't even remember."
John scowled at him. "What about the part where we're sexually incompatible?"
But Rodney's voice was airy. "Oh, well, if we'd never had sex before, it's perfectly understandable. I could perhaps, ah, show you what I like?"
He looked so hopeful that John was lost again, and how was it that he could resist Rodney's arrogant side all day, but when it came to this he was powerless? "Fine," John heard himself say. "Knock yourself out."
Rodney's hands were on John's boxers in an instant, yanking them back down, and Jesus, fuck.
Rodney's mouth sucked him in so fast John's hips lifted off the sleeping bag of their own accord, pushing up into that wet heat. And leave it to Rodney to go zero to sixty in fifteen nanoseconds, because this was all about speed and suction and holy crap, John was going to come in about a minute and a half.
"Fuck," John whimpered. "Holy fuck." It was too much, too fast, and he could already feel it building behind his balls. He was going to—
Rodney pulled off with an obscene slurp. "You see, that," he said, sitting up, "is what you just did to me."
"Fuck," John said again, with feeling.
"Not that there's anything wrong with it," Rodney said, and John could feel the cool air on his cock where it lay, bereft and neglected, against his stomach. "I just tend to like it a little slower. Okay, a lot slower. Here, lift your feet," Rodney added, and tugged John's boxers the rest of the way off.
"McKay—" John managed.
"No, no," Rodney said. "You said we could do this my way. And sometimes the best explanation is actually a demonstration." And he put a hand on John's left knee and slowly slid it upward.
"O-kay," John said, and spread his thighs, but Rodney's hand just skimmed the crease of his groin and continued upward to run along his side, firm enough not to tickle, light enough to be maddening.
"You see," Rodney said, leaning over him. "There's more to sex than orgasms."
John lifted his head. "You don't like orgasms?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said, and bent to touch his mouth to one of John's nipples.
John dropped his head back onto the sleeping bag and looked up at the ceiling. He wasn't going to tell Rodney his nipples weren't very sensitive. Rodney could figure that out for himself. And then maybe he'd stop neglecting certain other—
"Christ!" John hissed, arching against Rodney's mouth, because those were teeth, and they sent a bolt of sensation straight down to his crotch.
"Hmm," Rodney said, "thought so," and set to work on the other nipple.
By the time he was done, John was rocking his hips, fucking the air, begging without words. But when Rodney lifted his head, he just replaced his mouth with his thumb and moved up to suck on the skin behind John's left ear.
"So tell me," Rodney said, "if you didn't know I was bi, did I know about you?"
"Wha—?" Oh, God, he couldn't possibly be expected to carry on a conversation right now. But Rodney's head lifted, and he looked into John's face expectantly.
"I don't . . . uh," and Jesus, Rodney's thumb was still working, and apparently John's nipples were now the most sensitive part of his body, because he could feel every swipe and rub like it was directly wired to his cock. "No. I mean, I don't think so."
"So you never told me," Rodney said, and slid his hand over to John's right nipple, which was just as sensitive as the left.
"Look," John managed. "I'm military. I can't just . . . come out to whoever I want."
Rodney frowned and pinched John's nipple, hard enough to make him gasp. "I thought you said we were friends."
"We were," John said. "We are. I . . . damn it, I haven't told anyone. Well, I did tell my ex-wife. Um, before we got married."
"Seriously?" Rodney's fingers slowed for a moment. "Wow. How do you actually ever . . . wait, let me guess. There's some sort of cruising area on Atlantis that I forgot along with everything else?"
"I wouldn't know," John said, and Rodney's hand left his nipple, skimming down his stomach and then, damn it, skirting his cock like Rodney knew exactly what he'd been hoping for.
Rodney frowned, his fingers making circles in the hollow under John's left hipbone. "So what do you do, just stick to women?"
John lifted a shoulder. "Sometimes." He wasn't going to admit that the vast majority of his romantic interactions in the past few years had been with his own right hand.
"Oh, don't tell me," Rodney said, and slid his hand down to the top of John's thigh. "You don't date anyone, do you?"
"It may have been awhile," John admitted, and when Rodney's hand tightened, he couldn't help lifting his hips again.
"God, what a waste," Rodney said, and lowered his mouth to John's collarbone, sucking hard enough that it was going to leave a mark like the one on his own neck.
"Rodney," John said, and lifted his hips a few more times, just to kind of remind him what they were doing.
"Oh, no," Rodney said. "I'm just getting started, here."
John froze, his hips still flexed. "Please tell me you're kidding."
Rodney lifted his head. "Do you want me to stop?"
John swallowed. He got the idea already — apparently Rodney liked to be tortured. But Rodney wanted this, wanted to do it to him, and he didn't know how to say no to that. "Nah, you could, uh, do your thing."
"You won't regret it, I promise," Rodney said, and the last bit of his uncertainty seemed to evaporate as he set to work, touching and sucking and licking John's body from his shoulders to his hips to the tender skin on the inside of his thighs. John could feel his pulse in his neglected cock, hot and wanting, but he didn't move again, except when Rodney tugged to reposition him, spreading his legs to kiss higher still, and then, Jesus, sucking one of John's balls in.
John whimpered and bucked, and Rodney put a hand on his hip, holding him down while he worked first one ball over, then the other. And then, damn him, he lifted his head and rolled John onto his stomach and set to work on the small of his back.
John suppressed a groan. It was harder like this, with his cock underneath him, pressed against the sleeping bag. He couldn't help rocking his hips a little, sliding against the silky fabric. But Rodney, the bastard, smacked him. Right on the ass.
"Now, now, none of that."
"Christ," John said, and he could feel the smooth fabric beneath him turning sticky where his cock was leaking. If Rodney did that even one more time . . .
But Rodney didn't. His hands moved up John's back, tracing long, sweeping strokes that were a different sort of pleasure. This had to be what an erotic massage felt like, only it was backwards, because instead of building up toward an orgasm, it was moving away, only . . .
Yeah, not so much. John was still right there, still damn close to the edge, and Rodney knew it. He had to know it, because he'd moved up to John's shoulders, even farther from the target, and if he kept this up, John was going to explode.
"So," Rodney said conversationally, "tell me a little about your, ah, history with men. You're obviously more than theoretically bisexual, or we wouldn't have gotten this far. You said you've been married. Have you had a serious boyfriend?"
What the fuck, John stopped himself from saying. Because if Rodney thought he was going to have a meaningful conversation now, he was off his rocker. "Define 'serious,'" John tried, even though he knew Rodney would know that was stalling.
"Serious," Rodney said, and John was face down in two layers of sleeping bags, but he could hear the eye-roll. "As in, I don't know, more than just a few months' fling?"
"Um," John said, and Rodney's hands were moving lower again, so how the hell was he supposed to think? "I was with a guy for awhile. In college. I don't know exactly how long."
Rodney sniffed and swept his hands all the way down to John's ass. "If you don't remember, it can't have been serious."
"Look, I was . . . Christ. I was thinking about the Air Force. I couldn't exactly shack up with him."
"Were you in love?" Rodney asked, and crap, that was totally unfair, because he was kneading John's ass now, and if he hadn't had to think, John was pretty sure he'd be coming already.
I thought I was, John didn't say. "I don't know," he managed. "I don't fucking know."
"Hmm," Rodney said, and fuck it, he knew. He knew exactly what he was doing, and to prove it, he put a hand on John's hip and rolled him back over.
John didn't look down, but he could feel his cock leaving a sticky trail across his stomach as he flopped onto his back.
"Well, well, well," Rodney said. "What do we have here?"
"Damn it, McKay, if you don't do something—"
"You'll what?" Rodney said. "Take things into your own hands?"
It was tempting. So fucking tempting. But that would be breaking, and John Sheppard had never yet broken under torture.
Of course, there was always a first time.
"Just remember," John growled. "We're stuck here together for another two weeks."
"Oddly enough, I'm aware of that," Rodney said. "Looking forward to it, actually." And he slid a casual hand between John's thighs.
It felt like he was touching John's cock — well, okay, not really, but John's skin was damn sensitive, and when Rodney slid his hand up, he couldn't help whimpering and opening his legs. And this time Rodney didn't pull away to go play with some random body part, but stroked up until the tips of his fingers were teasing the skin behind John's balls, excruciatingly lightly.
John closed his eyes, tipped his head back and just took it, finally giving up and letting Rodney do whatever the hell Rodney wanted to do. And Rodney was, okay, apparently sitting up. John didn't open his eyes, just lay there with his legs splayed, breathing and listening to the little rustling noises Rodney was making. And then Rodney's fingers came back — slick this time, and no, John wasn't going to ask where the hell he'd found lube. He just let out a long, easy breath as Rodney slid two fingers inside him.
He was relaxed enough that there wasn't much of a burn, just a sense of homecoming that was an hour and two days and five years in the making. He might have sighed a little, but nothing more; he was pretty sure he was going to come as soon as Rodney started moving his fingers, but he didn't even care if he didn't. At this point, he wasn't sure he cared if he ever came. He was just drifting, here.
And then Rodney closed his other hand around John's balls, tugging them down just as he flexed his fingers inside, and that was—
"Fuck," John said, curling up off the sleeping bag. "Jesus H. Christ, Rodney, you can't, you have to—" Because Rodney was fucking him with his fingers now, with long, slow strokes, but the hand on John's balls was just firm enough that there was no way he was going to be able to come.
"Aw, come on. You can take it," Rodney said. "We haven't even been going an hour, here."
"Crap," John said weakly, and dropped back down with a thump. Rodney was a vicious, cruel bastard, and when John got his hands on him, oh, hell yeah. Rodney was going to pay and pay and pay.
Rodney kept it up longer than John would have thought possible, until John's balls were aching and his ass was clenching rhythmically around Rodney's fingers and his heart was pounding so loud he was sure it was audible in space.
"Rodney," John whispered, when he finally, finally couldn't take it any longer. And whatever was in his voice, Rodney heard it, because his head snapped up and his fingers slipped out and after another heartbeat, the hand around John's balls eased up, too.
"Had enough?" Rodney said, and John nodded jerkily.
"Okay," Rodney said, and reached for a towel he'd apparently set ready to wipe his hands. For a moment John thought he'd blown it, and Rodney was just going to stop, leaving him hanging, but then Rodney came up and kissed him, and John felt . . . God yes. The thing bumping against his thigh could only be Rodney's cock, hard again — well, it had been awhile. John didn't even want to guess how long.
"Fuck me," John said, and Rodney lifted his head, his eyes hot. "You can go as slow as you want," John added, because he wasn't going to last more than a stroke or two, but he didn't care. "Take another hour if you have to."
"Oh, God," Rodney said, and grabbed for his crotch, like he was holding himself back, like he was that turned on, and that was fucking amazing, because he'd already come and here he was, ready to go again, and John hadn't known. He'd thought Rodney was doing this all to him; he hadn't realized he'd been doing it to both of them.
"Do it," John said. "Rodney, c'mon."
"I don't have a condom," Rodney said, wild-eyed. "And have this little problem called a memory lapse. I can't be sure I even know who I've slept with over the past few years."
John rolled his eyes. "You're clean. We're both clean. It's not like we don't get our blood tested twice a week. And that's on a good week."
"Oh," Rodney said, brightening. "Hey, you're right. If you really, ah—"
"Do it," John said, and pulled his knees up to his chest.
Rodney got himself into position, braced with one arm next to John's side and the other holding his cock, and he was, wow, shaking, just a little.
"Hey," John said softly, and reached to help Rodney get the angle right. And then Rodney's cock was sliding into him, as easy as if it had always belonged there, and John was rocking to meet him with a heartfelt groan.
"John," Rodney said, braced with two hands now, but still shaking a little. "Oh, God, John."
"Yeah," John said, and wrapped his legs around Rodney's waist, pulling him all the way in, while the world went hazy with sensation. "Yeah, this is us."
Rodney pulled out and shoved in again, not slow, not controlled, and John jerked with him, his whole body a live wire. "I'm sorry," Rodney said, pulling shakily out again. "I can't . . . I don't think I can make it an hour."
"No problem," John managed, and then Rodney was shoving in hard and the universe went white as John started to come. Rodney made a tiny, broken noise and gave up all pretense of control, fucking John with short, jerky strokes as John's orgasm crested, wave after wave of it, so intense and pure it was almost pain. And then Rodney bent forward with a groan, hiding his face against John's body as his cock pulsed deep inside.
John dropped his heels back down onto the sleeping bag and wrapped his arms around Rodney's neck, holding him close as he panted and twitched, and John didn't let go when Rodney's body stilled, just held him there and breathed.
"Okay," John said into Rodney's hair. "You win."
Rodney huffed a laugh against his neck and then raised his head, his softening cock slipping out of John's body. "I can't believe we never . . . God, we must have been idiots."
"Speak for yourself," John said, and yeah, that was flippant, but he couldn't talk about might-have-beens, not now when he actually had something to lose.
"There must have been something," Rodney said, because he was Rodney and he'd never let anything go in his life. "Some reason I never considered you. Or maybe I did consider you, but I had a good reason for not trying to start anything. I just wish I could remember."
John looked away, still not thinking about it. "Look, we have this now. Can't we just take it for what it is?"
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, of course. Two more weeks with nothing better to do."
"Yeah," John said. "Two more weeks."
They got up eventually because Rodney got hungry, and they got dressed because John got cold, but even the silences between them were different now, and when Rodney went back to his work, he kept smiling at random moments. Which John knew, because apparently he had nothing better to do than to watch Rodney's face while he worked.
Well, nothing apart from planning what he wanted to do to Rodney the next time they got horizontal. He figured they'd wait a good twenty-four hours, since Rodney had come twice and neither of them were getting any younger. And besides, he wanted to make it good, to blow Rodney's mind for real this time, so he needed time to come up with a strategy. A good strategy. Good enough to leave Rodney speechless and panting and grinning like an idiot.
Kind of like John was doing right now.
So twenty-four hours was good. Twenty-four hours was going to be great. They'd both be rested and fresh and everything would be perfect.
He lasted five hours.
Hey, it wasn't his fault. Rodney was yawning and scratching his belly and fussing with the sleeping bags, and then he took his pants off, and how was a guy supposed to resist that?
"Umph," Rodney said when John slid a hand into his boxers, but he didn't exactly protest, unless shoving his boxers down and sucking on John's tongue counted as a protest.
They ended up on the sleeping bags again, with John still dressed and Rodney still in his t-shirt, but John was getting ideas right and left, so when Rodney reached for his fly, he twisted his hips away and kept right on playing with Rodney's cock until Rodney was breathing noticeably harder and pretending he didn't want to hitch his hips up.
Oh, yeah, this was going to be good.
John started with Rodney's t-shirt, pushing it up inch by inch with his mouth while his hand teased Rodney's cock in progressively lighter strokes. But Rodney was good at this — damn good, because he didn't even whimper when John let go to concentrate on his belly, nuzzling the soft hair right by Rodney's navel, then nipping and licking his way around it in ever-increasing circles.
And the belly thing worked better than John had expected, because after awhile Rodney began to twitch, and then to squirm, and it didn't look like the bad kind of squirming because his cock was bobbing, hard and dark, just inches from John's mouth.
"You don't . . . actually have to do this," Rodney said finally, and John lifted his head to see Rodney's cheeks satisfyingly flushed. "I mean, I might have gone a little, ah, overboard earlier? I'd be perfectly happy with, you know, just taking it slow."
"You think I'm doing this for you?" John asked, and Rodney's cheeks went even pinker.
"Hey," John said, because he wasn't, and anyway, messing with Rodney's head was almost as fun as messing with his body, "you can have a safeword if you need one."
Rodney's head came up off the sleeping bag. "A safeword? What are you . . . seriously, what the hell are you planning to do to me?"
"That," John said, "would be telling. How does 'orange juice' sound?"
"Perfectly ridiculous," Rodney said, lowering his head again. "Fine, whatever. If you think it's necessary. It's not like I'll forget it."
"Good," John said, and he'd kind of meant it as a joke, but he actually felt better knowing Rodney knew he could stop this with a word. Just in case. "Now if you don't mind . . ."
"Sure," Rodney said, "I mean, no. No, I don't mind. Just, well, you should know I'm not into pain or, or you know, um—"
"Rodney," John said, "I'm the one who remembers you, okay?"
"Oh," Rodney said. "Right." And he lowered his head back down.
John played with his belly a little longer, because it really seemed to do things to him and also, okay, fine, he was enjoying himself. Enough that he almost wished he'd taken off his pants already, but no, no, the point was to drive Rodney insane. He could adjust himself and wait.
And really, it wasn't a hardship. He got Rodney's shirt off eventually and discovered that Rodney's nipples were a lot more sensitive than his own, and also that Rodney flushed all the way down his chest when he was turned on. He apparently liked to have his ears nibbled on, and there was a little spot just below the point of his shoulder that made him shiver.
But the best part was touching his cock, just fleeting little touches when he wasn't expecting them, because that invariably got a twitch or a moan or even a muffled curse, and Rodney was leaking already, which was amazing, because John was just hitting his stride.
Rodney's feet got an unexpected reaction, and even a couple of gasps, so John spent a long time on them. And Rodney's ass, well, he almost blew it on Rodney's ass, and only just grabbed for Rodney's balls in time.
Rodney hissed and cursed, but John held on, his arm between Rodney's legs, as Rodney humped the sleeping bags beneath him and whimpered.
Later, John promised Rodney's ass, and let go of Rodney's balls to roll him back over.
"John," Rodney said, his eyes dark and his face slack and wow, he really was that close.
"Crying uncle?" John asked, and yes, he was feeling kind of proud of himself.
But Rodney managed to pull himself together, and the slack expression cleared a little. "Certainly not."
"Okay," John said. "You asked for it." And he sat up and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, took off his clothes.
Rodney watched him, his eyes following every motion while his cock twitched against his belly like it was the best porn ever, and it took John three tries to get his boxers off over his hard-on. But then he was naked — finally naked — and he could do things like plaster himself against Rodney's side and rub up against his hip.
Rodney lifted up and tried to turn toward him, but John was ready for that and shoved him back with a firm hand. He pushed himself up and swung a leg over to straddle Rodney's body, sliding up far enough that he wouldn't touch Rodney's cock when he lowered himself to rub against Rodney's belly.
Rodney's head was tipped back, his breaths coming fast and uneven, so John slid up and rubbed against his chest, guiding his cock with one hand to brush each nipple in turn. It wasn't something he'd ever done — hell, he'd never done half of this stuff — but he was to the point where he'd do just about anything to hear Rodney make more of those muffled, gasping noises, and, okay, yes, this was him surrendering. Rodney had won, fair and square, and it wasn't like he had any pride left. The only thing he had left to lose was . . . yeah.
Well, if Rodney had remembered him, he would be in danger of . . . right. He wasn't thinking about that. He wasn't thinking about anything but driving Rodney over the edge, right here, right now. John leaned forward, settling both hands above Rodney's head, and brushed the tip of his cock against Rodney's stubbly cheek.
It was his turn to gasp, the sensation almost too much for him, and then Rodney turned his head and sucked his cock in and shit, shit, he was grabbing for his own balls and handling himself a hell of a lot more roughly that he'd handled Rodney, but damn it, he'd almost lost it there, and he had plans. He pulled out of Rodney's mouth with a jerk and rolled to one side so he could sit with his arms around his knees and catch his breath.
"Ha," Rodney said, but the smugness was kind of undermined by how fast he was still breathing.
"Not done with you yet," John said.
Rodney laughed out loud. "Well, I would hope not."
"Hey," John said, with a sudden devious, incandescent thought. "I don't have to let you come. I could leave you hanging until morning. Maybe later."
"Oh, God," Rodney said, but John saw the way his cock bounced. "You wouldn't do that to me. Please tell me you wouldn't do that to me."
"I might," John said. "So where's that lube you were using?"
Rodney swallowed visibly before speaking, but he didn't hold out or bargain or use his safeword. "In the med kit. The white tube."
The kit was above the bench, and sure enough, it had a tube of medical grade lubricant. Leave it to Rodney to know something like that. Not that John was complaining.
He rolled Rodney over, pushing him up on his knees so his ass was in the air, and drizzled lubricant into the cleft between his cheeks. Rodney was so far gone he just shivered and spread his legs.
John took a couple of long breaths to steady himself and circled Rodney's hole with his thumb. Rodney felt relaxed. Shockingly open, and when John pressed with the tip of his thumb, it slid inside without resistance. Christ. "You need me to prep you?" John asked, his voice low and rough.
Rodney shivered again. "Um, I don't know, maybe? Or, actually, you could probably try it without. Just, you know, go slow?"
"Like I'd let you have it any other way," John said, and pressed the tip of his cock against Rodney's hole.
He had to grab Rodney's hips to hold himself there, keeping the pressure steady but easy as Rodney's body opened for him, slowly letting him in.
John breathed through his nose and fought the urge to thrust, because he'd be damned if he blew this now. And then Rodney's hips flexed, pushing backward, and John had to tighten his grip, the head of his cock just inside Rodney's body, while Rodney grunted and swore.
"Oh, come on," Rodney said. "You're not hurting me. I'm fine, I'm good, would you just go ahead and fuck me already?"
"Maybe if you ask nicely," John said, still holding him right there even though every muscle in his body was begging to press forward.
"Please," Rodney said, no hesitation at all. "God, John, please. Please fuck me. Do it now."
"Patience," John said, and eased a millimeter further in.
"Oh, God, where did you learn this kind of self control? No, no, don't tell me; I don't think I want to know. Just, just, please, John."
"Well, since you said 'please,'" John said, and gave Rodney another half inch, then a bit more. Rodney let out a sigh and took him, took him easy and smooth, and before John knew it he was all the way in, balls snug against Rodney's ass.
"That's much better," Rodney said, and John felt something warm and wicked bubble up inside him.
"Uh huh," he said, and reached around for Rodney's balls before he started to move.
"Fuck," Rodney said between gasps. "What do you think you're . . . ? Oh, Christ. You're a complete bastard, you know that?"
"Learned it from the best," John said, and moved a little faster. He wasn't going to last long — Rodney's ass was too tight, his frustration too contagious, but he gave it his best shot, pumping in and out until he couldn't take it anymore. And then, without bothering to give any kind of warning, he eased up on Rodney's balls and slid his hand up to circle Rodney's cock, and Rodney cried out and jerked and came. It was too much to resist, and John was beyond that, anyway — he lasted three more strokes before he was there, too, making more noise than he'd thought he was capable of and burying his face in the back of Rodney's shoulder.
"Oh, God," Rodney said as they collapsed onto the sleeping bags together. "Oh, God, ohgodohgod."
John just held on and tried to catch his breath, his body still singing. "So," he managed, "guess we're not 'sexually incompatible,' after all."
"Oh, God," Rodney said again. "I reserve the right not to answer that. Your ego's inflated enough already."
"My ego," John started, but anything else he could have said was drowned out by a clang from the cockpit.
John jerked his softening cock out of Rodney and stumbled to his feet, with Rodney right behind him.
"Shit, shit, shit," Rodney said. "That's the proximity alarm!"
"I thought you said you rigged it to the long-range sensors," John said, sliding naked into the pilot's seat.
"I did," Rodney said, but John had the HUD up and he could already tell Rodney was right. The object in question was at midrange, nowhere near close enough to worry about a collision, but still too close for comfort.
"Please tell me that's not a Wraith cruiser," Rodney said.
"Engaging cloak," John said. "I can't get a— wait. Receiving IFF. It's—"
"Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay," the radio blared, in the all-too familiar voice of Steven Caldwell. "Do you read?"
"—the Daedalus," John said, and switched on his radio to swap identification codes as his heart pounded in his chest.
"We were in the neighborhood," Caldwell said, "and Atlantis said you were likely to be on this course, so we figured we'd offer you a ride."
"Much appreciated," John said, and he was proud of the fact that it came out sounding almost sincere. "We should be in your 302 bay inside ten minutes. Sheppard out."
"Ten minutes?" Rodney squawked. "We're not even dressed!"
"So get a move on," John said, plugging a new destination into the autopilot. "Unless you want to give them ideas."
"Wonderful," Rodney grumbled, and it was weirdly warming to see him just as cranky about this as John felt.
They cleaned up as fast as they could with the meager resources of the jumper's emergency overnight supplies. John dabbed ineffectually at the stains on the sleeping bag, and then just stuffed it into its sack and made a mental note to put it through the cleaner himself. And then there was nothing to do but go back to the cockpit and turn off the autopilot.
Rodney settled into the other seat. His hair was a little rumpled, but it matched the stubble, so it wasn't like it would give anything away. "So much for two weeks," he muttered.
"Hey," John said, keeping his eyes on the approaching form of the Daedalus. "Nothing says we can't keep doing this on Atlantis."
"Oh, no," Rodney said, "nothing but your employer's ridiculous rules."
John shrugged, and fine, he hadn't violated this particular regulation in awhile, but it wasn't like he was a by-the-book kind of guy. "The rules are changing. I wouldn't worry about it."
"I'm a worrier," Rodney said. "It's what I do."
"Look," John said, "if you don't want to, it's fine."
"No," Rodney said, gratifyingly fast. "I do, I . . . seriously, John, I can't imagine giving this up, not when we've just discovered it. I mean, not unless you, ah, aren't interested."
"I'm interested," John said. His heart was doing double-time again, and it had nothing to do with the bay doors opening in front of them.
"Okay," Rodney said. "Good. That's good."
"Yeah," John said, and took the jumper in.
There was no time for private conversation on the Daedalus. They were only half a day from Atlantis, and it was morning, ship-time. John managed to get himself a little cleaner in the ship's military-austere bathroom, but he and Rodney spent most of their time briefing Caldwell, and then Woolsey via subspace, on the results of the hive-control virus. Ronon and Teyla had, of course, already reported, but Rodney had a lot to say about the improvements he'd been working on, so they were back in Atlantis before they knew it.
Zelenka met them in the gateroom moments after they'd beamed in.
Rodney rounded on him, and wow, John hadn't realized he was still so cranky. "Look, I have had a very, very long day," Rodney said. "Can't this wait?"
"No," Zelenka said. "It cannot. It's the memory device. I have discovered the pattern buffer!"
"What?" Rodney's expression morphed from exhausted and annoyed to astonished and eager so fast John blinked. "How did you . . . ? I thought it was impossible! The thing doesn't have a storage drive big enough to contain the necessary information. I mean, the sensor array alone is complex enough to require—"
"The sensor array is the pattern buffer," Zelenka said. "We were looking for complicated, but it turns out, it is actually quite simple. Come."
"Wait, you think you can fix me? Get back all of my lost memories?"
"Yes, yes," Zelenka said. "I will show you."
They started down the stairs, and John knew he should probably stick around and say hi to Woolsey, but Jesus, this was huge. This was everything he'd wanted. Rodney would remember him, know him, and then . . .
Right. And then what? Would Rodney still want him? He hadn't, before, or he had and he'd thought better. So if he remembered the thing that was stressing him out . . .
Okay, okay. If Rodney remembered it, they could talk about it. Really talk, and hell, if it meant going through more personal crap, John would do it. For this, for Rodney, he would damn well do it.
The memory device was in Rodney's lab, still intact, looking deceptively innocent on the lab table. Like it couldn't turn a person's life inside out with a touch to the forehead.
"So," Rodney was saying to Zelenka, "what do we have to do? Override the operating system? Or is there some sort of hack we can write to run it in reverse?"
"No," Zelenka said. "I told you, it is surprisingly simple. It is already programmed to undo the effects. You simply repeat the actions you took the first time."
"Well, that's easy enough," Rodney said, and reached for the device.
"Wait!" Zelenka said, and put a hand on Rodney's arm. "There is one catch."
"It is designed to return your brain to precisely the same state that is stored in the pattern buffer," Zelenka said. "That means it will overwrite—"
"Every synaptic connection I've created or modified since then," Rodney said, and he snatched his hand back.
"Wait," John said, "what?"
Zelenka turned to face him. "The device stored a snapshot of Rodney's brain at the precise moment he touched it. It can return him to that state, but if it does, he will not remember anything that has happened since."
"Oh," John said, and felt something freeze inside of him, right in the middle of his chest. "You can't make it give his memories back any other way?"
"I'm afraid not," Zelenka said. "For all of its complexity, it is a very simple device."
"I'm not doing it," Rodney said, his arms crossed over his chest. "I can't afford to forget two whole weeks."
The frozen thing in John's chest thawed and bloomed into something bright and warm. "It's not like you haven't been briefed on everything you forgot before."
Zelenka looked up, startled, first at John's face, and then at Rodney's. "Are you certain? Because the longer you wait, the more you will have to forget."
"That's a good point," John conceded. "If you're going to do it, you have to do it now."
Rodney was staring at him, his mouth in a tight line. "Wait, you want me to do it?"
John's chest went cold again, because he hadn't meant that at all. And Zelenka was still staring. "Excuse us a second," John said, and grabbed Rodney by the shoulder, steering him toward the door. There was a small lab two doors down, unused, with a door that locked, and Rodney followed him inside and turned to face him as soon as the door was secure.
"Seriously?" Rodney said. "You want me to forget about—" he waved a hand "—everything we just did?"
"I never said that," John said. "I just . . . okay, look. The one thing you worked on over the past two weeks was the Hive control virus. How much would it set you back to forget what you've done?"
Rodney's nose wrinkled. "Not much. The code is complete, and my revision notes are pretty extensive. I should be able to pick up the work without much trouble, even if I can't remember doing it."
"So it's just me," John said, and he didn't know if that made him feel warm inside, or terrified.
Rodney tipped his head. "Yes, well, the only thing I really want to remember is you, so . . . oh."
"Yeah," John said, and it hit him square in the gut. Whatever Rodney chose, it was going to mean forgetting about him.
Rodney's eyes were wide. "So I have to choose between remembering five years of what was apparently a stressful friendship or one day of mind-blowing sex?"
John swallowed, his heart caught between the extremes of stressful and mind-blowing. "We can have sex again," he said slowly. "We can't redo five years."
Rodney's face crumpled. "Okay, the thing is, you don't know that. Maybe there was a reason I was stressed. Maybe we'll never have this chance again."
John nodded, and it hurt to say it, but he couldn't stop now. Whatever he wanted, whatever Rodney wanted, they had to face the truth first. "I know. But that's kind of the point. I mean, if there was a reason, don't you want to know?"
Rodney opened his mouth to speak, but John cut him off with a hand. "No, think about it. If there was no way to fix you, it wouldn't matter, and we'd just have to deal. But there is a way. And if you bury your head in the sand, you'll always wonder what it was. It'll niggle at you, until it drives you nuts."
"Damn it," Rodney said. "You're right. How are you right about this?"
John's chest was cold and tight again, and he'd never regretting winning an argument so much in his life. "I've known you for five years," he said.
"Oh, God," Rodney said, and then his hands were on John's arms and they were kissing, hard and desperate, like it was their last chance. "Promise me," Rodney said, pulling back. "Promise me you'll tell me everything, afterwards."
"Oh, no. I'm not doing this until you promise. I'm not going to be able to drag it out of you this time. I won't even know the right questions to ask. Come on, you owe me this, John."
"Fuck," John said, and closed his eyes. "Look, I don't know if you remember this, but talking isn't exactly my strong suit."
"I know," Rodney said. "What do you think I'm worried about?"
"I'm going to need you to tell me about the thing that was stressing you out. When you remember it, I mean."
"I can't promise that. I won't even remember I forgot it."
"Right." Crap. There was no easy way out of this.
"John," Rodney said, and the misery on his face hurt worse than the prospect of losing everything.
"Okay," John heard himself say. "Fine. I promise."
Zelenka convinced Rodney to take the device to the infirmary, on the grounds that they didn't know how it would affect him. But in the end it was no big deal. As Keller watched, Rodney gave John one last, furtive look, and then raised the thing to his forehead.
"What the . . . ?" He sat up with a jerk, staring around the room. "Okay, what just happened? It can't be a transporter, because Sheppard is here."
Sheppard. Not John. Funny how he'd gotten used to the name.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Keller asked.
"We were on MQ8-73B," Rodney said. "We'd just repaired a rift in the fabric of space-time, and the Hlexwa were so pleased they showed us their secret collection of Ancient artifacts. Why?"
"You've lost a couple of weeks," Keller said, laying a hand on Rodney's arm. "Dr. Zelenka can explain better than I can."
John crossed his arms over his chest and stepped back as Zelenka explained about the memory device. His gut hurt, and so did his head, and Rodney was right in front of him, but he missed him so badly he wanted to hit something.
"Wait," Rodney said. "I forgot the hive virus, my citrus allergy, and Sheppard?"
Zelenka shrugged. "From what we could tell, the device removed only memories that were actively causing you stress."
"Oh," Rodney said, and his face shuttered, like he damn well knew what it meant.
John couldn't take any more of this, not here, where he couldn't even ask. He stepped forward and clapped Rodney on the shoulder. "Good to have you back to yourself," he said, falsely hearty. "I'll see you when you're up and about."
"Of course," Rodney said, and he looked as uncomfortable as John felt. But it was done. The decision was made. There was no going back, now, and this was his Rodney, the old Rodney, the one that remembered him.
The one who'd been happier to forget him.
John didn't see Rodney again that evening, but it was hardly surprising — he was exhausted with ship-lag himself, and Rodney had been up eight hours longer than he had. When he finally went back to his quarters, he crashed face down on his bed and woke eight hours later with his boots still on.
He stumbled out of bed and to the mess, only to find Rodney already there. But of course Rodney was hours ahead of him.
John was heading for another table when Rodney looked up, and then he couldn't not sit with him, because it would be too obvious.
"You're up early," he said as he put his tray down. He was pretty sure that was a normal sort of thing he would have said two weeks ago.
"Yes, well, apparently I completely screwed up my internal clock during those two weeks I can't remember."
John controlled a wince. "We had to stagger shifts in the jumper. You took the night shift, Atlantis time."
"Ah," Rodney said, and went back to his bacon. "So we're okay, then? Because Ronon said we'd been kind of, um, at odds."
John took a too large, too hot gulp of coffee and had to swallow it, fast and painful. "You forgot about me," he said before he could think better of it.
"It's not like I did it on purpose," Rodney said. "I didn't forget anything on purpose."
"I know," John said. "I'm not blaming you."
"Okay," Rodney said. "Okay, good."
"It was just kind of weird," John said.
"Yes, well, it's more than a little weird to be missing two whole weeks. Teyla said we met with Todd?"
"Yeah," John said, and went over the whole thing with the hive virus, even though he was pretty sure Rodney had already been briefed.
"So you don't know if I'll be able to use it again."
"You didn't know," John said. "It depends how much intel the cruisers had."
"Right," Rodney said, and drank some more coffee.
"Look," John said. "About the forgetting thing."
"Hmm?" Rodney raised his eyebrows.
John swallowed hard. If he didn't have the courage to ask now, he never would. "Zelenka said you were stressed out about something," he said, his pulse pounding in his ears. "Something to do with me."
"Oh, really," Rodney said, and suddenly became very interested in the remains of his scrambled eggs.
Crap. Rodney knew. He had to know. "'Cause if I did something to freak you out," John said, "I'd like to know about it."
Rodney's chin jerked up. "I didn't tell you?"
John grimaced. "Of course you didn't tell me. You didn't remember."
"Oh," Rodney said, and he sounded almost relieved, damn it. "Right."
Rodney squared his chin. "There's nothing. Nothing you did, Colonel. Nothing for me to stress about. It must have just been a glitch in the device."
"Sure," John said sourly, but he couldn't say Rodney had promised to tell him, because he hadn't. John was the one who had made promises, and that meant . . . okay, he couldn't. Not now, not here. Because it was going to make a scene of some sort and, yeah. Better for all involved to keep that private.
But he could do that. He could. He'd promised Rodney, and that promise was all he had left.
It hurt, seeing Rodney around. It hurt in ways John hadn't imagined. It wasn't just that Rodney had refused to tell him. It was that he felt like he was starting all over again, for the third damn time. And maybe Rodney did know him a little better now, maybe Rodney remembered Doranda and Wallace Stevens and beer on the pier. But that didn't seem to matter as much as John had thought it would, not when Rodney didn't remember making him beg and curse and begging and cursing, himself.
But John had asked for this. He'd argued for this. He'd blithely said, "We can have sex again," when he hadn't realized what a huge gulf there was going to be between the words and reality.
And Rodney was stressed around him. He could feel it now, when he'd apparently taken it for Rodney-normal before. It was in the jerk of Rodney's chin, the way his eyes slid sideways, the way he rolled his eyes instead of laughing when John tried a lame joke.
So it was a relief to spend half the afternoon sparring with first Ronon and then Teyla, even if he kind of suspected they were both going easy on him.
"Look," he said, "I'm not made of glass."
Teyla raised an eyebrow at him. "I did not think you were."
"You don't have to go easy on me," John said.
Teyla never lowered her sticks, but she shook her head softly. "I do not believe I can give you the release you are seeking."
"What's that supposed to mean?" John asked, circling her warily. She was always more dangerous when she got quiet. "Okay, for the record, I've already talked to Rodney, and I'm going to talk to him more tonight."
"I see," Teyla said, but when she came at him, she still didn't go for the kill.
By the time he made it to Rodney's door, John's palms were sweating and the back of his neck felt cold. He should have changed out of his uniform, but it was too late for that, and anyway, he didn't want to look like he was desperate, even if he was.
"Yes," Rodney's voice called, and then his door opened. "Oh. It's you."
"Look," John said, "we need to talk."
Rodney frowned. "I thought we'd done that already, in the mess and whatnot. I mean, you can't expect me to . . . because yes, fine, it was a stupid thing to do, and I of all people ought to know better than to touch random Ancient devices. But Zelenka did fix me, so . . ."
"Yeah," John said, coming inside until the door swished shut behind him. "This isn't about that."
"Okay." Rodney looked good — impossibly good. He'd shaved, but that wasn't it. So maybe it was all John. "Care to tell me what it is about?"
John cleared his throat, but nothing came out. Damn it, he should have brought beer. "Can I sit down?"
"Suit yourself," Rodney said, waving vaguely at his room, and only then did John realize that Rodney's couch was piled high with equipment and his computer was on, which meant his desk chair was probably still warm from his ass and, yeah. John was not going there.
He sat on the bed, straddling the corner, while Rodney lowered himself gingerly into his desk chair.
"Well?" Rodney said.
"You forgot about me," John said, and even that was hard to say, damn it all.
"Yes, yes, we've established that. I assume you have something more to discuss?"
"It was freaky," John offered, and he knew it was a cop-out before Rodney's nose even wrinkled.
"I'm sure it was quite a blow to your ego."
John winced, but he'd deserved that, and he knew it. "You didn't know me," he tried. "We had to talk."
"What, like this? Because this isn't exactly what I'd call a conversation," Rodney said.
"Pretty much," John said. "I, um, I told you stuff."
"Like what?" Rodney said. "Seriously, is there a point to this? Because I have a lot of work to catch up on." And he flapped a hand in the direction of his computer screen.
"Yes," John said, lifting his head, and suddenly he was pissed. Pissed at Rodney for forgetting him, and pissed at himself for just about everything. "There is a goddamned point. I told you shit I've never told anyone and now you've forgotten it."
"Oh," Rodney said, and his belligerence faded. "But surely you would rather I actually remember you? Because if I understand it, I'd lost all memory of everything we'd ever done together."
"Yeah," John said, and now he just felt tired. "Look, I just . . ." But he had to get it out. He'd fucking promised. "I, um, I had a dog. She got run over when I was eight." Okay, that was just stupid. "And I've been married. I'm pretty sure you know about that, but her name is Nancy and you said I broke her heart even though I'm pretty sure she got over me."
"Ah, Ronon said he'd met her," Rodney said cautiously. "You told me about her?"
"It came up," John said. "We were alone in the jumper for two and a half days together. A lot of things came up."
"Okay," Rodney said, but he sounded lost.
"It mattered, okay?" John said. "Somehow it all fucking mattered."
"Yes," Rodney said, "well, either you're doing a painfully bad job of explaining, or it doesn't matter now, because I have no idea what you're getting at, here."
"Yeah," John muttered. "Me, neither."
"Look," Rodney said, pushing himself to his feet "it's been a long day. So if you don't mind . . ."
Jesus, Rodney was kicking him out. And he hadn't managed to say anything. John stood up slowly and turned toward the door. If Rodney didn't want to hear it, he couldn't exactly . . . okay, no. No, he'd promised. "You thought we'd broken up," John said.
Rodney's head jerked around to face him, eyes wide. "What?"
"You and me," John said. "You thought that was what you'd been stressed about. Guess you thought I broke your heart or something."
Rodney's back went stiff. "That's perfectly ridiculous."
"I know that," John said. "I told you that. I just . . . Jesus, McKay, I didn't even know you were bi."
Rodney's lips were pale where they were pressed together. "Well, excuse me for never telling you, but it never seemed particularly relevant. It's not like we've ever, you know, had a reason to discuss the subject."
John crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe we should have."
"Oh, so you wouldn't be all shocked when I lose my memory and don't realize there are things I never wanted to tell you? Well, excuse me for not seeing that as particularly regrettable."
John felt something go cold in his stomach. "'Never wanted to'?"
"Well, from your reaction, I wasn't exactly wrong, now, was I?"
"No," Rodney said. "No, I think you've said enough. And I am sorry I touched that stupid device. I'm sorry I revealed a little more than you wanted to know. But honestly, I don't see how you can possibly blame me for things that happened while my brain was damaged. I mean—"
"It wasn't damaged," John broke in, and he wanted to grab Rodney's shoulders and shake him. "You were still you."
"I didn't remember you!" Rodney shouted. "In what possible universe could I still have been me?"
John stared at him, and Rodney stared, and they were both breathing like they'd just run ten miles.
"I wanted to be him," John said, and Jesus, he had, he just hadn't known it. "I wanted to be the person you thought I'd been, because at least he had been with you."
Rodney's jaw dropped open, but he didn't say a word.
"And then I got what I wanted — what we both wanted," John heard himself say, "and you don't even remember it."
"Oh, my God." Rodney said.
"I'm sorry," John said, and it hurt again. Everything hurt. "I promised I'd tell you and I did and I'm fucking sorry, okay?"
"Oh, my God," Rodney said again.
"I have to go," John said, because he'd done it. He'd finally done it, and now he was terrified again.
"No," Rodney said, and moved between him and the door. "No, I can't . . . are you saying we had sex?"
John nodded, not trusting himself to come up with any more words.
Rodney's voice was shaky. "Was it, um, any good?"
"It was fucking fantastic," John said. He swallowed hard. "Look, I'm sorry for that, too."
"You're sorry it was fantastic?"
"I'm sorry I had sex with you when you didn't remember me! I just . . . we thought it was permanent, okay? And you really, really wanted it."
"Well, that's hardly surprising," Rodney said.
"I can't believe we had sex and I can't remember it."
John closed his eyes. He still had no idea where they stood. Where this was going. And now he was the one shaking. "You didn't want to use the device the second time," he said. "I said we could always have sex again." Rodney's mouth started to open, so John held up a hand. "If you wanted to, I mean. But we couldn't redo five years."
"You argued me into it?"
"Look, I'm not saying the sex wasn't great," John said. "But you didn't know me. Not really. And I . . . I didn't know if you'd still want me if you did."
"I see," Rodney said, but for once his face wasn't giving anything away.
"You were happy when you forgot me," John said.
Rodney gave a little shake of his head. "I wasn't happy. I mean, obviously, I don't remember how I felt, but, well, I could see less tense, or possibly even relieved, but that's really not the same thing."
"Was it Doranda?" John asked. "Because, yeah, I was ticked at you, but I got over it, okay? I thought you knew that. Or is it about the thing where I kind of get on your case to hurry up? Because I can work on that."
"Oh, for crying out loud," Rodney said. "You can't possibly be this dense."
"Hey!" John said, because that was low, and also, he had no idea what Rodney was talking about.
"I thought you were straight," Rodney said.
"Oh," John said, and okay, maybe he was dense. "Um. I'm not."
"I got that," Rodney said. "What with the sex I can't remember and all."
"So you, uh, you were stressed out because you wanted . . ." He couldn't say it. It was too impossible. Too obvious.
Too right. And suddenly the gulf between them . . . wasn't, anymore, and John was cupping his hands around Rodney's face and kissing and kissing him.
"You," Rodney said between kisses. "I wanted you."
"You can have me," John said, and he was feeling shaky in a whole new way. "Christ Rodney, we're already . . . you already . . ." He tried to put what he meant into the kiss, pressing his mouth to Rodney's jaw, to his neck. "I was pretty fucked up when you forgot me, okay?"
"So this isn't just about the sex?" Rodney said, but it sounded breathless rather than arch.
John pulled back far enough to see Rodney's eyes. "Really not."
"God," Rodney said. "I can't believe you never said anything."
"You didn't say anything, either!"
"Well, of course I didn't say anything," Rodney said. "I didn't think you were a possibility!"
John grinned at him, fond and foolish, because mistakes had been made — for years, apparently — but they were beyond that now. "Yeah, well, there you go."
Rodney kissed him this time, sliding his hands down John's sides and then around to John's ass. John pressed against him, rocking his hips and trailing his mouth over to Rodney's ear. "I'm glad you remember me."
"Thank you," Rodney said, "for telling me."
"Yeah," John said, and kind of shrugged, full body, against Rodney. "Well, I promised."
Rodney found his mouth again and John set to work giving him some new memories, stroking his hair and sucking on his tongue. "Gonna make it good for you," John said, sliding his hands down to lift Rodney's shirt up. "Gonna make you beg."
"Oh, God." Rodney shuddered.
John grinned and found Rodney's left nipple with his thumb. "Oh, and by the way?" he said into Rodney's ear, "I like it when you make me beg, too."
"Christ," Rodney whimpered. "This is so unfair. I can't believe we did this and I can't remember any of it."
"I know." John kissed him again, gentle as he knew how. "It sucks. But I'll make it up to you, I swear." He slid his free hand down Rodney's back and pulled him close. "I promise," John said. "I'll tell you everything."