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“Unscheduled off-world activation.”

John put a burst of speed in his movements at Chuck’s announcement, jogging up the stairs to join Elizabeth in the control room.

“We expecting anyone?” he asked.

Elizabeth raised an impeccably groomed eyebrow in response. “Do I really need to explain what the word ‘unscheduled’ means, John?”

“Funny,” John deadpanned. “You should take that routine on the road.”

The incoming wormhole engaged, the shimmering shield setting in place immediately. John was just about to ask Chuck if they'd received any IDC when a panicked voice broke over the emergency channel of their radios.

“Atlantis, this is Major Lorne. Do not lower the shield. Repeat, do not lower the shield.” A ruckus could be heard in the background, people shouting and the sound of a scuffle.

Lorne’s voice sounded again, loud and desperate. “Dr Porter! Don't - -“

Lorne's quiet but heartfelt curse was almost drowned out by the sound of something striking the shield.

Elizabeth looked at John, confused, but John had heard that sound before. He knew what it meant. Swallowing hard, he tapped at his ear to activate his mic. “Major, tell me that wasn't Dr Porter.”

Elizabeth gasped, her hand fluttering up to cover her mouth. John saw her turn to Chuck, no doubt about to give the order to lower the shield immediately and John held his hand out, cutting her off before she could speak.

“Lorne,” he demanded, putting as much command into his voice as he could. “Report.”

“Colonel Sheppard,” Lorne drew a shaky breath in that could be heard by the entire room, “we have a bit of a situation here.”

A situation. John was pretty sure that was the understatement of the century. Scientists didn't just throw themselves against an impenetrable shield for nothing. Cursing quietly, he started to yell for a backup team to gear up, ready to move in - -

“No!” Lorne cut him off abruptly. “You can't send anyone through the gate. We’re not under attack. Not by anything you can fight anyway.”

Elizabeth had succeeded in pulling herself together quickly and John was impressed by how steady her voice sounded when she joined the conversation. “What exactly do you mean by that, Major?”

“It's…the people here are sick. Really sick. It..it's like nothing I've ever seen before.”

John could hear Chuck radioing for Carson in the background which saved him a job. He nodded his thanks to the Canadian and focused on Lorne’s voice.

“The village leader said it started just a few days ago and, already, half the people here are dead. Whatever it is, it’s highly contagious and…it moves fast, Sir.”

“How fast?” John had a feeling that he knew the answer but held out hope that he was mistaken.

“All of my team are already showing symptoms,” Lorne confirmed John's worst fears.

“Dr Porter?”

“Was the first one to show signs of the illness, Sir. It's….we’ve seen what this thing does to people, Sir, and it's not…it's not…” Lorne faltered. “It's not how I would choose to go. I'm guessing Dr Porter felt the same way.”

John’s hand clenched into a fist, his jaw tightening. “It won't come to that,” he heard himself promise. He spied Carson entering the gate room at a jog and beckoned him up. “Look, Major...Evan..listen to me. We've got the finest minds in two galaxies here. We can fix this. Dr Beckett is here, why don't you tell him as much as you can about the illness and we'll go from there.”

John stepped back from the console and let Carson take over. Running his hands through his hair, he breathed out slowly. This was not where he'd saw his day going when he woke up this morning. Hell, he'd only came to the control room in search of Rodney, wanting to see if his geek had time for a remote-controlled car race before dinner.

He startled at the touch of Elizabeth's hand and smiled in apology. “Sorry, little shaken I guess.”

“I know how you feel,” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest, cupping her elbows for security. “I've always known this could happen,” she said. “Whole new Galaxy; it stands to reason that we'd encounter viruses or illnesses that we'd never seen before but I just..” she spread her hands helplessly.

“You never thought it would happen.”

She nodded.

“Me either.” He listened to Carson grill Lorne for a moment before turning back to Elizabeth. “If we send a team through, I want to be on it.”

Elizabeth stiffened. “John, I understand where you're coming from, I do. But I can't expose my CMO, my CSO and my miltary commander to this contagion. You have to understand.”

“Who said anything about taking McKay with me?” John almost laughed at the idea. “The outbreak of an epidemic is no place for a raging hypochondriac like McKay. Unless there's some Ancient doohickey causing this then I don't see any need to - -“ John broke off as he realised Elizabeth wasn't laughing, was growing paler by the second. “What?”

“You don't know,” she said.

No. John could already feel his head shaking. “Don't,” he ordered. “Don't...”

“John. I'm sorry, but Rodney was on that mission. He left with Lorne's team three hours ago.”

———

“Carson, what can you tell us?”

Elizabeth had gathered the senior staff - minus Rodney - in the conference room to discuss the epidemic on M59-YTX. John was still reeling from the news that Rodney was one of the infected. He hadn't even known that McKay was off-world and, really, what the hell was the man thinking going off-world without his team anyway? John unclenched his fists and rested his hands on the table, careful to avoid Teyla’s understanding gaze as he listened to what Carson had to say.

“Not much, I'm afraid,” Carson answered. “From what Major Lorne has described, I'd say that we're talking about an airborne virus. And a fast acting one at that. Dr Porter - God rest his soul - started to develop symptoms after only two hours and the rest of the team followed shortly after.”

“Why did they not return to Atlantis after Dr Porter’s symptoms began but before their own?” Teyla asked.

Elizabeth answered, shaking her head. “The village they visited lies two miles from the gate. Major Lorne did send two men back after Dr Porter started to develop the early symptoms described by the villagers but they were recalled before they could get there after they realised it was too late for all of them.”

“What symptoms?” Ronon asked the question that John really didn't want the answer to. If taking a shield dive was the better option he didn't want to know what the alternative was.

Carson looked as uncomfortable answering the question as John was hearing it. “The Major said it starts as a rash. Uncomfortable but not painful. Then lesions start to form on the skin, blood starts to seep from the fingernails.” Carson grimaced in apology. “It's not a pretty picture. Tiredness, headaches, seizures, then…death.”

Teyla shook her head sadly. “I have not heard of such an illness before. I had hoped that I would recognise the symptoms and perhaps be of some help but I cannot.”

“Ronon?” Carson asked hopefully.

“Sorry.”

Elizabeth straightened in her chair, game face on. “What sort of timescale are we talking about? How long do they have?”

“You mean, how long do we have to find a cure,” Carson corrected. “I wish I could give you a straight answer but there isnae a definitive one. Some of the locals died within 12 hours, others took days, some are still holding on. I'll hopefully know more once I've collected some samples and done some tests. Until then,” Carson shook his head, “we just don't know anything.”

“All right. How confident are you that any team we send out there will be safe?”

“I've yet to see anything that could breach one of our sealed suits and we have a mobile decontamination unit that will fit in the jumper,” Carson replied. “It wonnae be comfortable, but, providing my team wear the suits at all times there shouldnae be any risk. I can have a team ready in fifteen minutes.”

“Got any spare suits?” John spoke for the first time, ignoring Elizabeth's rebuking glare as he looked at Carson. “Those are my soldiers out there, along with the scientists we’re supposed to protect. I'm not leaving them behind.” He turned to face Elizabeth. “I won't leave them to suffer this alone.”

Elizabeth relented, nodding her acquiescence. John scraped his chair back and moved to follow Carson out the door.

“John?”

Elizabeth's voice stopped him.

“Tell Rodney that we’re all thinking of him.”

“And that we love him,” Teyla chipped in.

“Yeah,” Ronon agreed. “In the way a friend loves another friend.”

John almost smiled at hearing his own words, said to Rodney on another deathbed, thrown back at him. He'd felt the need to qualify that statement back then, only to regret it the moment that the monitors Rodney was hooked up to went flat. He couldn't lose Rodney again. Wouldn't.

John nodded at his friends, his family, and set off for the infirmary.

———

Walking the two miles to the village in full hazmat gear wasn't an option so John found himself piloting a jumper through the gate to M59-YTX.

Landing just past the gate, he dropped the rear hatch and watched as Carson and his team of medics bustled around Lorne and Martinez. Both men looked tired, pale and blotchy with patches of a spotty red rash dotting their skin. On the bright side though, both Lorne and Martinez were moving and talking and, most importantly, still alive. While they were still alive, there was still a chance.

Lorne managed to escape Carson's clutches and approached John stiffly, snapping to attention as he got closer. “Sir,” he began. “I want to apologise for what happened with Dr Porter. I take full responsibility for - -“

“Jesus, Evan, it wasn't your fault. None of this is your fault.” John felt sick.

“I should have realised something was off when he volunteered to hike back to the gate with us instead of staying in the village with McKay and the others.”

Hearing Lorne say Rodney’s name just made John feel sicker.

“He wasn't even supposed to be on this mission,” John muttered to himself. Lorne, of course, heard it and what little relaxation that had entered his spine since John's absolution of his guilt coursed through him again as he stiffened up. John felt like an ass and waved for Lorne to sit down. “Sit your ass down before you fall down, Evan.”

Lorne complied, sitting stiffly in Rodney's usual seat. “I'm sorry about bringing Dr McKay into this, Sir,” he said quietly enough that only John could hear.

John smiled tightly. “I'm pretty sure it was McKay who forced himself on to your mission, not the other way round, Major.”

“Still, I'm - -“

“We’re good, Evan. Leave it at that. Carson is gonna fix you guys up in no time, no sweat.”

Lorne didn't look convinced but was too diplomatic, and too good a 2IC, to say anything. John concentrated on flying, the faceplate of the hazmat suit limiting his vision more than he'd like, and tried to ignore the way Lorne scratched idly at his prickled looking skin.

They landed in a clearing that could have served for a village square and John was surprised by the lack of people waiting to greet them.

“The villagers, those that are still alive, they’re not very mobile,” Lorne explained, seeing John's confusion. “Most of them are holed up in their houses. I left Dr McKay, Sgt. Barnes and Dr Lenkov in that building over there.” Lorne pointed to a low building that looked like it might have belonged to a blacksmith and, sure enough, John could make out what looked like Sgt Barnes stepping out from behind a pillar.

The sun was beating down on them as they stepped out of the jumper and John immediately wanted to take the suit off, feeling oppressively warm within seconds.

“Colonel Death Wish. Why am I not surprised that you're here.”

John grinned widely as he recognised the dulcet tones of Rodney McKay. Turning around as gracefully as he could in the cumbersome suit, he held his arms out wide. “Aw, come on, McKay, I went to all the trouble of dressing up for you and you call me na- -“

John broke off as he caught sight of Rodney, the words and the fake joviality catching in his throat. Lorne and Martinez looked ill, yes, but Rodney...Jesus, Rodney looked like death.

The prickly red rash that speckled the other men's skin was evident on Rodney too but to a much further extent. John could see at least three painful looking lesions, one on his left forearm, one on the underside of his left jaw and one especially raw looking lesion just visible past the collar of Rodney's shirt.

Rash, lesions, Fatigue, Headache, seizure, death.

John attempted a smile, trying to gain his equilibrium back but it was too late. Rodney's face had already fallen. John's heart felt like it was being squeezed as he watched Rodney tilt his chin up defiantly, masking his feelings in a way that he hadn't done with John in years.

“I don't look my best, it's true,” Rodney started to babble. “But I'm not dead yet, Colonel, so there's no need for the wounded puppy look or - wait, where's Dr Porter?”

— — —

John felt like a spare part. The kind that was left over after you'd built your Ikea table, the useless piece of metal that probably served a purpose at one point but wasn't really necessary for anything. He'd helped set up the mobile decontamination unit but after that, his presence was useless. Carson's team were busy running tests and uploading data, ready to be sent back through the Stargate to Atlantis and all John could do was sit with Rodney, sweating in his hazmat suit and play a lacklustre game of prime/not prime.

He'd made the rounds at first, checking in on his soldiers and the other doctor, playing the part of the CO. As the hours stretched on though, he found himself less willing to leave Rodney's side. None of the others seemed surprised by that but it didn't stop John feeling like an ass. He should care about all his people equally. Lorne wasn't just his 2IC, he was his friend. Martinez ran with him and Ronon occasionally and Barnes was a fellow golf enthusiast. He didn't know Dr Lenkov well but that shouldn't matter, it shouldn't make her deterioration any less distressing than the rest but…it had always been Rodney. It was typical of John that he could only ever admit that when he was close to losing him.

Rodney's fingernails had started to bleed an hour ago and John could see the energy leaching out of him with each passing minute. And he could do nothing about any of it. All he could do was play some stupid game that he knew was taking neither of their minds off what was happening.

“26,457?”

“Colonel?” Carson interrupted before John could give his answer. “Can I speak with you?”

“Go,” Rodney waved him off when John turned to look at him. “I think Marie over there's been eyeing up my veins for more blood anyway. She's almost as bloodthirsty as you, Carson.”

Carson smiled thinly. “You know us voodoo practitioners, Rodney. Cannae get enough of the stuff.”

Marie took John's place next to Rodney as Carson drew him out of the makeshift infirmary and into the square.

“Any progress, Doc?”

Carson made a motion with his head that John couldn't decipher, a mix between a nod and a shake. “Some,” Carson clarified. “We've confirmed that its airborne for one. Airborne and incredibly virulent. Looking over the remaining villagers and listening to them…John, the resistance rate on this thing is zero. We're lucky that none of these people has been through the gate in over a month because, if they had…we'd be looking at a pandemic.”

“Do we know what's causing it? How to cure it?”

Carson held out a containment flask, letting John look at it. “According to the villagers, their buildings started to become covered with this fungus a few weeks ago. Our current hypothesis is that as the fungus developed, it started to release spores into the air that infected everyone living here.”

John looked around the village, really looking at the buildings. He didn't like what he saw; the fungus was everywhere.

“Aye,” Carson nodded. “You see my point.”

“Ok, so what next?”

“Next, I need to get all these samples back to Atlantis and brief my team back there on what needs doing. Dr Union, Allison, I'm sure you've met her before, lovely lass, blonde hair, pierced nose? She worked for the CDC before joining the program. If anyone can confirm that this is the culprit and come up with a cure, it's her.”

That sounded hopeful, more hopeful than John had thought possible, despite his promises otherwise, but he wasn't comfortable with the thought of leaving his men - leaving Rodney - behind. Carson must have sensed his hesitancy.

“My team will remain here while I brief Dr Union’s team and I'll be coming back once I'm done. I want to keep an eye on them until..well, I want to keep an eye on them.” He reached out to touch John's shoulder. John could barely feel it through the suit. “We’ll be back in a couple of hours. I promise.”

“Go.”

John turned at the sound of Rodney's voice to find him standing behind him, a cotton ball held to the crook of his elbow.

“Go,” Rodney repeated. “I’m not saying that you haven't been scintillating company or that I don't appreciate you coming but you're keeping me up with all that damn yapping, Colonel and this, well, this might be our best shot. Go. I'll catch up on some sleep and be refreshed and ready for another game when you get back. In fact,” Rodney made a show of getting a brilliant idea, “bring a chessboard back with you.”

His words were right but John could see through them and he knew Rodney was as afraid as he was, probably more.

“Rodney.”

“John.” John could count on the fingers of both hands the number of times Rodney called him by his first name and it never failed to affect him. “We’ll all still be here when you get back. I'll,” Rodney cleared his throat, “I'll still be here.”

— — —

John and Carson arrived back on M59-YTX six long hours and two horrendous decontamination showers later. John had been itching to get back for five of those six hours. He flew the jumper to the village in silence, Carson sitting uncomfortably next to him.

“I didn't think we'd be so long,” Carson said for the dozenth time. “I'm sure they'll all be fine though. Dr Union seemed positive, didn't she?” Carson nodded, answering himself. “Aye, she did. We’ll find a solution yet, Colonel. Just you wait and see.”

John didn't answer, afraid that anything he would say to Carson would just sound like an accusation, blame for keeping him away from Rodn- his men, for so long. He touched down in the same spot as before, noting that there was no Sgt Barnes to greet them this time. Marie stood in his place instead, a blank look on her face that chilled John to the bone.

“How bad is it?” Carson asked the question before John could.

“We’ve lost all but two of the villagers,” Marie answered.

Carson cursed under his breath, his head dropping to his chest.

John felt bad for the villagers, he did, but he didn't have the luxury of dwelling on them at that moment. “Our people?” he asked shortly.

Marie’s eyes met his, her gaze filled with steel. “The virus is progressing in each of them. We're making them as comfortable as we can.” She turned to Carson. “Any good news, Doctor?”

Carson started to catch her up on the situation. John, having heard it all multiple times in the past six hours, left them to it, making his way to the building they were using as an infirmary.

He spoke briefly with Lorne, who had clearly progressed past the lesion stage while they were gone, trying to offer the man some reassurance but his heart wasn't in it and Lorne could tell.

“He's in the next room,” Lorne said after John's attention wandered for the third time. “The noise in here was getting too much for him.”

“Headaches.” It wasn't a question but Lorne nodded anyway.

Rash, lesions, Fatigue, Headache, seizure, death.

John closed his eyes for a brief moment before standing up. “I'm just gonna,” he gestured to the back room.

“Do what you gotta do, Sir,” Lorne smiled weakly. “He's tougher than he looks though. Remember that.”

John certainly hoped that was the case because Rodney looked the opposite of tough right now. If John had thought he looked ill before, it was nothing compared to the sight that greeted him in the back room.

“Hey.” Even Rodney's voice sounded exhausted as he struggled to sit up, the room so dark that John was surprised Rodney could even see him. “D’you bring the chessboard?”

John held it up for Rodney to see and Rodney's mouth widened into a smile. John had always loved Rodney's smile, even now it was one of the best things he'd ever seen.

“You might even win this time,” Rodney joked.

John’s voice was suspiciously thick when he answered, something he hoped Rodney chalked up the suit. “I win every time.”

— — —

Rodney couldn't concentrate on the game but he'd made an attempt anyway. John knew he would keep pretending forever if he let him which wasn't fair to either of them. Nothing about this was fair. John didn't miss Rodney's grateful sigh when he claimed to be bored with chess.

“It's no fun when it's not a challenge,” John teased. “We’ll do this again when you're better.”

“When I’m better,” Rodney echoed. “John - “

“No.” John shut him down. “That's quitting talk, McKay and I don't have quitters on my team.”

Rodney smiled. “Team,” he said quietly. “I'm gonna miss the team.” He looked intently at John, his pain-glazed eyes serious. “Zelenka will moan and complain so bad that you'll almost miss me but he would be a good addition to the team. He’ll look after you all, make sure you don't do something stupid.”

“Something stupid.” John laughed abruptly. “Like decide to tag along on a mission that has nothing to do with me and walk into an epidemic? Something stupid like that?” John breathed heavily, his breath fogging up the faceplate of his suit. “What the hell were you thinking, Rodney?”

Rodney smiled sadly. “There was an energy signature I'd never seen before on the MALP. You know me and energy signatures.”

“Yeah,” John's anger evaporated as quickly as it came. “They make you stupid.”

Rodney's hand, pale where it wasn't dotted with lesions, three of his fingernails loose and crusted in blood, rested on the heavy red fabric of John's suit covered arm. “You gotta promise me something,” he said. “You gotta tell Jeannie that -“

“That you died saving children,” John interrupted. “I know, Rodney. I've heard it before. But you didn't die any of those times and you won't die now. The docs will fix this, they’ll..”

Rodney shook his head. “No, that's not it. Tell Jeannie,” he swallowed, “tell her that I didn't die alone. Tell her that I didn't...that I didn't - -“ Rodney's voice cut off, his eyes growing hazy for a second before his entire body started to seize, convulsing violently.

Before he could even think about what he was doing, John ripped off his gloves, closely followed by the hood of his suit and grabbed Rodney's head in his hands, keeping him from braining himself on the metal frame of the bed.

“You're not alone,” he whispered, making it a mantra. “You're not alone.”

The seizure was over quickly, Rodney's unconscious body stilling just as Carson ran into the room. Carson stopped in his tracks as he saw John without his protective gear.

“Oh, you daft bugger,” he sighed. “What the hell were you thinking, John? You could have died.”

John had been ignoring Carson as best he could, his eyes locked on Rodney's still breathing form but he looked up, attention caught by  Carson's choice of words.

“Could have?” he asked, half-rising from his seat.

“Aye,” Carson held out a syringe, grinning madly. “Could have.”

“Is that…?”

“It worked on the samples back on Atlantis,” he said. “Let's hope it works just as well now.” He looked between the two of them with a fond exasperation. “For both your sakes.”

— — —

“You're still here.”

John looked up from his tablet at the sound of Rodney's voice.

“Hey,” he smiled, “you finally decided to wake up. Bout damn time McKay.”

Rodney looked around him, his eyes widening as he took in the familiar architecture, not a fungus-ridden wall in sight. “Atlantis?”

“Told you we’d find the cure,” John smirked. “The lesions are already starting to heal. You'll be back to your old self in no time.”

Rodney didn't smile, just kept looking at John like he was something to be figured out. John had seen enough of Rodney's eureka moments to know when he had finally made sense of the data in front of him. Rodney's eyes widened in surprise and John shifted forward, covering Rodney's hand with his.

“I wasn't alone,” Rodney smiled.

“No,” John agreed. “And you don't ever have to be again. Just know one thing.”

“What?”

“You're never going off-world without me again.”

That was a deal Rodney was happy to make.