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‘Til Human Voices Wake Us, and We Drown

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Long ago the trees thought they were people.
Long ago the mountains thought they were people.
Long ago the animals thought they were people.
Someday they will say, long ago the humans thought they were people.

Native storyteller, Johnny Moses

*

The next day, they wake early, in Rodney’s bed—John takes an overly long moment to appreciate the way Rodney’s face is eased by sleep, the way that John can easily slide a hand across Rodney’s ribs until Rodney turns into his warmth.

The breeze that flutters the curtains of the open window picks up enough to become wind and Rodney shifts, slits eyes in protest at the new cold, most likely.

“All right?” he slurs, tucking his chilly chin into the warm hollow of John’s neck (the tickle of it makes him laugh).

“Yeah,” says John, a little surprised, because he is fine, which is pretty strange, considering. He ruffles a hand through Rodney’s hair, grinning a bit when Rodney almost purrs with contentment. “You?”

“Mmm,” Rodney answers (if that counts as an answer, and now he’s nosing the line of John’s neck, pressing a short kiss to the corner of John’s mouth, a kiss that becomes fuller when John rolls to him with a warm and willing mouth.

Rodney pulls back after a moment, his brow wrinkled as he asks, “don’t you think it’s a bit late for me to complain?”

“Never stopped you before,” John says, only wriggling once when Rodney smacks the back of his head. “Ow!”

“This is a little different than freaking out over sleeping with my team leader,” Rodney mutters, only grumbling a little bit when John smiles, kisses a shoulder and shifts to get up.

“Should check on Ronon and Teyla,” he says, bending down to find pants, shoes, gear. “And I’m sure Sam would be happy to hear from us.”

“Seeing as that was a while ago, I wouldn’t be surprised. And don’t forget the socio-anthro-biologists,” comes from Rodney, now face down on the bed.

“You mean SGA-7? I think they’re actually just in the botany department. Only Conway has a biology degree.”

“Semantics,” says the bed.

“The sooner you get up, McKay, the sooner we’ll be back at Atlantis and you can have some coffee.” John sat back on the bed to tie his boots.

“…I’ll race you to the Stargate.”

*

John feels the slight shift of air that means the Stargate has shut off, senses more than sees Teyla and Ronon and Rodney at his back as he walks towards Sam’s office. He’s almost surprised to see her at the top of the stairs, until his last databurst comes back to him and he almost feels guilty.

“My office,” Sam says, with that note of finality that means a please isn’t coming. John winces, sure that Rodney’s making a similar face behind him.

While they walk, there’s a buzz in the air as people pick up that something’s not quite right. If they only knew the half of it, John thinks.

They make it into the conference room. Rodney is tapping his fingers like he’s thinking of all the caffeine he could be drinking, Teyla looks serene (per usual) and Ronon mostly stoic and silent. This quiet lasts all of a minute before Sam pushes back from the table and levels a glare at John.

“So, would you care to tell me how a simple research mission turned into a Wraith culling? And not only that, but I am all ears for hearing exactly how it is that when we scanned the planet after the attack, there were no human life signs, and there continued to be no human life until just before you radioed in half an hour ago.”

John can hear Rodney open his mouth next to him, and wow, would that be a bad idea, so he lashes out with a boot at Rodney’s shin even as he’s pulling at the cord that’s still around his neck. He lays the necklace—pendant, really, a simple leather thong with one single stone that looks almost black—on the table. It turns blue, John remembers, a cool calm blue that is almost the color of—

“Well?” And there’s something like fear layered over the irritation in Sam’s voice, so John begins to explain.

*

”Why did we say we’d come with, again?” Rodney starts his complaint with the energy of a continued conversation; almost as if, John thinks, he’d been mentally arguing ever since they left Atlantis, cramming the fraction of a second that it took to travel through the Stargate full of a list of faults and mistakes.

“The Athosians used to trade with these people and Teyla wanted to visit them,” John says as he falls back and lets Ronon and Teyla lead. “It’s not so bad, Rodney; remember, this is the planet where they had the weeklong festival with that bread that you loved.”

“Oh,” says Rodney in a tone of great interest; then, almost casual enough to fool John (but not quite), “I guess staying would be okay. Just long enough for the red shirts to get their data about the migratory patterns of kelp, or whatever.”

John tries to hide a grin, not very successfully, thankful that SGA-7 is up ahead with Teyla, already peppering her with questions about the locals.

“You probably shouldn’t call Marlowe, Conway and St. James ‘red shirts’,” he says, acknowledging Teyla’s gesture to follow with a nod. “I’m pretty sure they’d put poison ivy in your sleeping bag.”

Rodney’s gasp makes John laugh out loud, and he continues to smile for several steps, until he notices the look on Teyla’s face, the anxious way she is gesturing them to hurry.

*

“While the last time we had visited PX4-772 was very pleasant, soon after we arrived I noticed that all was not well,” continues Teyla. “On our journey to the village, I could hear shouts and cries of fear. After asking Colonel Sheppard to quicken our pace, we found the people greatly agitated, though they quickly changed their demeanor. I believe they were relieved, then.”

“Relieved?” asks Sam. Teyla nods.

“I believe they feared us to be enemies. But we were greeted and welcomed to join them at their noon meal. Afterwards, we were given gifts created by the Ancients,” she gestures to the stone lying dark (blue, John’s mind demands, it’s blue, and then, oh—). “Gifts to be used in case of great need, he said.”

*

The elder of the village presses the necklace—and oh, John can see Rodney smirking out of the corner of his eye, jewelry, how FABULOUS—into his hands and John smiles, more or less automatically.

The whole bit about being for ‘great need’ kind of freaks him out, though, but the night passes with laughter and some of that bread that Rodney loves (and wine that Rodney loves even more) and their room overlooks the ocean and it feels both like Atlantis and extremely removed, so John feels only excitement and no nerves (of guilt, of duty) when he kisses his way into Rodney’s mouth, folds him close and allows the heat and the friction to carry them both away.

They wake the next morning to the whine of Wraith darts and no time, there is no time, until John remembers the necklace, the Great Need, and clenches it in his hand and thinks on, on, on and the world glows blue—

*

“I’m sorry,” says Sam, after a moment, as if she’s afraid she’s losing something in translation. “They do what?”

Rodney opens his mouth to answer, shoots a look towards the table as if he can see John’s foot through it, and then answers.

“You heard right. They turned us into seals. That’s why the scanner didn’t pick up humans until this morning, because, well, we weren’t human again until this morning.”

“Seriously?” Sam bursts out, and glances at Ronon sitting next to her. He raises an eyebrow.

“We are very serious, Colonel Carter,” Teyla assures her.

John resists the urge to rest his head in his hands.

“Infirmary,” is all Sam manages after a moment. “Now, please.”

At least there was a please this time, John thinks before he double times it towards Keller and her army of nurses, needles and computers.

*

“God,” sighs Rodney as he slides a pawn (slowly and with much narrow gazing at John) forward a space. “It’s been three whole days; why won’t Keller pull us off the bench?”

“It’s nice to know that all my tutoring in sports metaphors is paying off,” John says, leaning back so as to casually avoid Rodney’s swat towards his head.

“I mean,” Rodney continues, even as he growls a little when John picks up his knight and nudges Rodney’s bishop off the board. “It’s not like the tests turned up anything conclusive.”

“Yet,” John says. “Some of the tests take a week to run, you know that. So quit bitching and make your move.”

Rodney glares at John, gestures irritably in a wiggle of fingers that is some form of Rodney-speak that he doesn’t know (and John could have sworn he was fluent) and swaps his knight for John’s queen.

“Check.”

*

In John’s dream that night, he is back on PX4-772 and the Wraith are coming, coming so he thinks on, on, dammit, show me what you do and then suddenly there’s air, too much air and he cries out for Rodney in a shout that sounds harsh and hard in his ears and then finally there’s water, the rush of water below him so without thinking John jumps, throws himself towards it with a relief that is so sharp that it almost hurts.

He knew then that time passed--it’s only been moments since John dropped off, an itch that comes with being useless on Atlantis making him exhausted--hours after hours of floating and exploring in a whole world of water where John could fly, stretch himself with new muscles and new instincts until everything he saw was blue, and he couldn’t be scared, because somewhere Rodney was flying too.

*

“Marlowe’s missing.”

It takes John a moment to wake and fully process the crackle of his radio, but when he does he finds himself flatly, terrifying awake with the radio clutched in his hands.

“When was the last time someone saw him?”

John can hear a chatter of background voices and then Lorne speaking again.

“He was in the lab last night, and the computers show that he walked to his quarters early this morning. That’s the last anyone saw.”

John is already out the door, down the hall, thinking open at Rodney’s door. He is surprised to find the bed empty, but after a moment Rodney pokes his head out of the shower, hair slicked down, face damp.

John spares half a moment to take in the way the water slides down Rodney’s shoulder, and probably the rest of him he can’t see (and why the hell is he taking a shower at 3am, part of him has time to question) before he’s spitting out, “Marlowe’s missing.”

*

They search all night, they search until Atlantean day filters in the windows, but Marlowe is gone.

It’s only when they search the infirmary that they find that one of the pendants from PX4-772 is gone as well.

*

The world is blue and clear and John can see for miles, but instead of joy all he can feel now is fear, fear crushing in on him like the water, a weight that pushes all thought from his mind and air from his lungs and Rodney, where is Rodney, he tries to move but his body is strange, foreign and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe and—

*

A day goes by. Two. John doesn’t see much of Rodney, which isn’t that odd, because it’s not like they’re joined at the hip (or anywhere else, his inner twelve year old adds) but still. Weird. And honestly, the times he does make it down to Rodney’s room to watch a DVD or make fun of something stupid he heard about the scientists, it seems like Rodney’s always in the shower. Or just out of it. Not that the idea of a wet Rodney isn’t… nice (and leading to soft kisses and damp sheets and licking drops of water from Rodney’s collarbone), but John’s starting to wonder.

*

John falls asleep in the middle of a briefing about a change in guard rotations (and how they might want to draft a letter to send in the next databurst about Marlowe’s status as MIA) and wakes up in a cold sweat thinking only blue, everything so blue and cold.

*

On the fifth day, Rodney tells Sam that they need get off world, somewhere, anywhere, before they all go stir-crazy.

“Who knows what Ronon might do?” he tells her, and while John knows that Rodney is mostly joking, they ‘gate out in less than an hour. It’s a milk run mission if there ever was one (taking pictures for a anthropologist who’s laid up with a fractured ankle) but John’s just glad to suit up again, let Rodney stomp out some of his irritation on alien soil.

PX9-181 is a world they’d visited before, and John mostly remembers because he’d been teaching Ronon about Earth music at the time and so they’d started calling it “The Land of the Rising Sun”, partly because the sun never moved much higher that the horizon line, making everything dusky and pale like dawn, and also because it made John laugh. So John’s humming (it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God, I know I’m one) when the exit the gate, a mumble of sound that is almost a counterpoint to the sound of their footsteps. They start down the shallow path grooved into the dirt: Ronon, Teyla, John, Rodney.

After a while, John notices how dry it is, how their shadows stretch across sand and dirt towards a bumpy horizon that is eternally hovering at the start of day.

He feels the song shrivel up in his mouth, the beginning of a headache coil at the base of his neck.

“Where are the ruins that Demmon wanted photographed?” The words come out sharper than John means too, almost angry, and he can see Teyla slant a glance at him from the corner of his vision.

“About a mile in that direction.” She gestures, then pauses. “John, are you quite well?”

John opens his mouth to answer, because no, he doesn’t feel quite well, doesn’t feel very well at all, and God, why is it so dry? But then he hears a sound next to him, a mixture of a gasp and a whimper and turns to see Rodney kneeling on the ground.

“Rodney?” John pulls him back up to standing, boneless and heavy, and can see Rodney’s eyelids flutter openclosedopen as he breathes, heavily like they’ve been running.

“Where is it,” Rodney mutters, and John props his weight awkwardly against his shoulder as Teyla heads at a sprint towards the ‘gate to dial Atlantis.

“You’re okay, buddy,” John murmurs, feeling the clamminess of Rodney’s hand in his, squeezing it. “You’re with us and we’re going back to Atlantis. I’ve got you.”

“Where,” Rodney gasps, and God, John almost can’t breathe, and the headache has bloomed, an ugly flower of pain that coils up his neck and into his head and the darkness, it’s around them but then Teyla yells, “John!” and the gate is active, glowing bright and (clear) blue and Ronon’s at their other side, supporting Rodney (and probably John, at this point) and then there’s nothing, a fraction of a second of nothing, and only a clatter of feet, a rush of air (gate shutting down) and “John?” (probably Sam this time) and nothing. Nothing.

*

A shiver wakes John up, a twitching of muscles that makes him grit his teeth because it reminded every sore spot on his body to start yelling in loud and persistent voices.

“What happened?” John finds himself whispering. His throat hurts.

Keller comes into his line of sight, offers a cup (ice chips, pure bliss down his throat until John wants to drown in it) before she answers.

“You’re massively dehydrated,” she says, with the kind of stern anxiety in her voice that she must have perfected from listening to Carson. “You’ve been hooked up to saline and electrolytes for the past three hours and I’m surprised you’re actually awake now.” She watches him twitch and twist (so sore) and a small smile appears. “Also, you’re probably sore as hell, but that’s from fainting once you got back to Atlantis.”

“Guys don’t faint,” John complains (illogical though that thought may be) and then remembers, the headache, darkness— “Where’s Rodney?”

Almost like it’s involuntary, Keller looks past John to his right and he twists on his bed to see Rodney, face a little strained even in sleep, surrounded by machines and a blanket that hisses and whirs with the flow of water through a cooling mat.

“He had a fever of 101.6,” Keller says. “Which, considering Rodney usually temps a little lower than the norm, is only one area for concern.”

John sucks another ice chip into his mouth, a buy for time so he can process Keller’s words. Finally, he asks, “only one area?”

Keller smiles, almost guiltily.

“The rest of your tests came back, as well as some preliminary findings on the objects you were wearing.”

“And?”

Keller hesitated and then finally says, “there are some… anomalies.”

John pulls himself to sitting, even as he feels his vision waver, pinpoint, a wash of lights and darks which finally pull him into unconsciousness.

*

”Where is it?” Rodney is by his side, gasping for air (and something else?) but Ronon and Teyla are nowhere to be found. And John finally sees that Rodney isn’t asking where they are, or where he is, but where is it? And while at the time he didn’t know, couldn’t know or hear what Rodney said, now (in an infirmary bed with an IV drip and Keller nearby with a clipboard) he can hear Rodney’s whisper.

“Where is it? The ocean, the water, John, where. Is. It?

*

“I’d tell you to stop fainting, but I have it on good authority that guys don’t faint,” says a voice that plucks at John’s thoughts, slowly tugging him through the wave after wave of dizziness until he can open his eyes and there’s Keller again.

The quality of light has changed and John’s brain feels clearer, quicker.

“How long was I out?” He shifts position, noticing that his vision holds and slowly sits up.

“About two hours,” Keller says, sounding fairly unconcerned (John feels) considering he was just unconscious. “I told you that I was surprised you were awake. Feeling better?”

Ignoring the question, John turns his head to see Rodney, eyes still shut, strain still wrinkling his brow. He wishes he could be closer to smooth it away.

“You said there were anomalies,” and he wonders how is voice is so normal, no wobble or tightening.

“It’s a straight chemical equation,” Keller says quietly, and John can see how tightly she’s clenching the computer tablet; her knuckles are white. Between them, John can see the glimmering curl of Rodney’s DNA spin slowly on the screen. “Any transformative process requires energy to force a change in the DNA.”

“So part of Rodney evaporated every time he used that device?” John says, and he can feel the horror vising his words in his throat.

“It’s more like lighting a fire,” Keller says, with a short shake of her head. “The device uses of a person’s own energy to complete the transformation, we knew that already, but when the transformation is reversed, there’s still the energy that was… used. We don’t get it back.”

“What does it use?” John swallows, has this nightmarish image of Rodney wandering around missing fingers, arms, kidneys, eyes.

Keller looks up at him, her eyes nervous. She shifts her glance to where Rodney sleeps (though John would argue that unconscious can’t quite be called sleeping).

“…I’d almost call it the soul,” she answers.

John twists away, remembering the clutch of Rodney’s palm in his, how only this morning they had been standing shoulder to shoulder on the balcony, with Rodney’s gaze intent on the curl of the water, the ever-bending arc of wave upon wave upon cool, blue… he snaps his attention back to Keller.

“But why doesn’t my DNA show that same change? I used a device just as long as Rodney did, and it’s not like we don’t both have the gene.”

Keller’s already shaking her head, again.

“It might be because his is synthetic. Or maybe there’s some other combination of code that explains it. Because I’ve already checked Teyla and Ronon, and whatever the device did to you, it’s almost like it had some kind of… backup energy, in case the user didn’t have the Ancient gene. Like a battery.”

“So Rodney and I are the plugs in the wall?” John wants to laugh, this is all so ridiculous and wrong and Rodney’s not awake, won’t wake up and there’s nothing else that. “Wait, what about the others? The…” and for a moment John can’t remember their names, starts to snap his fingers (Christ, just like Rodney, and his throat closes around a hard knot of grief), “…SGA-7, St. James, and Conway and…” Marlowe, the disappearing man.

All of them had the gene therapy, just like Rodney.

But Keller is quiet, and doesn’t meet John’s gaze.

Jennifer,” he uses her real name like a command, and her head snaps up, eyes a little wet and very scared.

“They activated the gate while most personnel were helping get your team to the infirmary. Took a jumper. They could be anywhere.”

MIA. John’s throat aches, but water won’t help. Water, he thinks (is calm, safe, clear, like flying) did enough.

“But they left a note,” and God, it sounds like the words are torn out of her, and then John is holding a piece of paper with words scrawled on them, lots of stops and starts like the writer can’t quite form the letters on the first try.


every wave crescendoed like an orchestra of bones


*

John gets out of the infirmary in three days. He had tried to leave after the first day, but Ronon blocked the door and Teyla said please. Please, John, go back to bed.

Rodney doesn’t wake up, only tosses and thrashes for water. John slips ice chips, piece by blissfully cold piece, past his lips.

After, he petitions Sam to let them go back to PX4-772, talk to the locals, find a way to reverse the device. But for now (at least for now, only for now, please, what if Rodney never wakes, spends his days encased in a blue world John can no longer visit) she says no, denies him with words and with pity until he leaves her, closes himself in his room.

*

He sleeps and no longer dreams of cold and blue but darkness, crushing darkness and Rodney’s name trapped forever behind his teeth.

It’s so cold, I can’t see. There needs to be something, something…

And for a moment it’s blue and calm and he can see again and it’s endless stretch of time where he’s flying flying and, it’s

(CLEAR)

and

(LIGHT)

and

(LET THERE BE)

John wakes with a start, finding tears on his face. He runs out into the corridor, knowing that it’s still (dark) night, halls of Atlantis still empty, but he knows, knows what he can do.

If this were a fairy tale, John thinks crazily, giddily, I could just kiss him to wake him up. But not quite…

Sam’s office is dark, empty, still filled with a tense kind of waiting that is enough like hope that John almost smiles. He keys the combination to the safe in the corner (moved from the infirmary, but a safe combination is an easy enough thing to bribe out of Lorne, play the pity in people’s eyes to get the useful information) and there they are, a tangle of cords and dark stones. He can feel the sting of the leather biting into his palm as he races down empty halls, past lonely corridors until it’s the infirmary, skeleton shift, and Rodney, Rodney, Rodney.

“Colonel?” says a nurse, looking up from her notes with surprise but John is already moving, sprinting towards Rodney’s bed, the look that is almost pain still on his face. John brushes a careful hand against Rodney’s cheek (cooler now, almost cold, the fever broke but Rodney slept, sleeps) and then loops one pendant over Rodney’s neck, the other over his own.

Colonel.” He can hear frantic voices behind him, radio calls that will bring Keller and Sam and who knows what else, but for now John presses a kiss to Rodney’s mouth, whispers, “I’ve got you”, closes his eyes and thinks ON.

I’m an Ancient-adapted wall socket, John thinks, use me up.

*

The world glows blue. But warm. And there’s something like a smile in it, the color of (Rodney’s eyes) the ocean and the smell of salt and it’s—

it’s—

calm.

*

Everything hurts. And it’s bright but green (damn Atlantis architecture) and John’s eyes hurt even though they’re closed, and someone is saying his name John, John, Sheppard, dammit, wakeup, JohnJohnwakeupwakeup…

*

There’s a hand at his cheek and John can (finally) open his eyes. Rodney’s eyes are (finally, finally) open, and he’s smiling.

“All right?” Rodney asks.

And yes, John thinks, before the world (Sam and Ronon and Teyla and Keller and Atlantis) explodes in on them. It really is.

END
*