John Sheppard aimed his P90 at the Wraith, the one with its claws stuck in Rodney McKay's chest. John figured he maybe had ten seconds to aim, maybe fifteen, before Rodney started dying and it would be like watching Colonel Sumner buy it back on the Wraith ship all over again. Before his only choice would be whether to kill Rodney fast and mercifully or watch as the Wraith sucked the life out of him.
Rodney had stopped struggling. He was gasping, wild-eyed like an animal, standing stiff and terrified. The Wraith had its free hand around Rodney's neck, pulling him up, forcing Rodney to stand on his toes so he could breathe. Rodney's hands were still clutching at the Wraith's wrist, as useless as a kid's next to that kind of strength.
That wasn't supposed to happen.
They'd gotten rid of Teyla's tracking necklace weeks ago, and the Wraith had stopped showing up at almost every planet they'd 'Gated to. They'd been exploring, making the archeologists happy, meeting locals who actually wanted to trade.
That's what they were doing here, on this planet. Teyla had remembered coming here as a girl, listening to her dad talking to the locals about an object that glowed with its own light. Rodney was sure it was a ZPM, so they 'Gated here to check it out. Just another flight on the Puddle Jumper, just another trip to a planet of big trees and high humidity. No big deal. He'd told Weir they'd be home by dinnertime, made some dumbass comment about Rodney. He couldn't even remember what he'd said, now.
Now, in about ten seconds, Rodney was going to start dying. Unless John shot the Wraith first.
Maybe they'd gotten too complacent, after things going their way for so long. Hell, he didn't even know where Aiden and Teyla were, though he was sure they were still in radio range. If he had time to call them.
He and Rodney had gone to check out some ruins the villagers had mentioned. He'd left Rodney for all of three minutes--three minutes--to look at some kind of pillar thing, and then suddenly Rodney gave one single, horrified shout and John whirled around and now he had maybe ten seconds to make a shot to kill the Wraith without killing his friend.
John hadn't cared about Sumner. Not in any real way, not more than he'd have cared about anybody he saw dying in agony. That'd been as much about denying that Wraith bitch her meal as anything.
But this...This was Rodney who'd be dying in agony if he fucked up. And that was enough to set John's hands shaking.
He stilled them with an effort, adjusted his stance. He had to make this shot. That was all.
And he had to kill the Wraith, not just wound it, because if he didn'tt, the thing would just suck up Rodney's life that must faster to patch itself up. Like that bitch did to Sumner--took fifty years off the poor bastard right in front of John's eyes.
So. Headshot, John thought, right through the skull. Blow the fucker's brains out. If that didn't kill the Wraith outright, it should at least be enough to make it let go.
Except the Wraith was standing right in front of Rodney, face-to-face. John could only see part of Rodney's face, just one of his too-wide eyes. If John missed, then he'd killed Rodney anyway. Even from this distance he'd blow a hole the size of a fist out the back of Rodney's head.
No problem, John thought, because he didn't have any choice about it. He just had to aim carefully, more carefully than for anything he'd ever shot at in his entire misbegotten life. More carefully than he'd aimed for Sumner's heart, and he'd hit that dead on from a little farther than this.
He had no choice, so he'd do it. Either he made the shot or Rodney died.
Time was up. Rodney'd started screaming again. Maybe he'd already lost days, maybe weeks...
No, John thought. He aimed and pulled the trigger.
Even as his finger moved--squeezing, not jerking, like his dad taught him--he heard gunfire from somewhere around his nine o'clock, off in the forest. Teyla and Aiden, coming in guns blazing.
The Wraith heard it too, and turned its head in the direction of the noise.
Just as John pulled the trigger. And the bullet went right past the Wraith and into Rodney McKay's skull.
Rodney's body jerked with the impact, his head snapping back and to the side. The Wraith dropped him and John saw him fall.
John stood there, frozen, his P90 still raised so he could sight along the barrel. He watched as Teyla and Aiden came running up firing, watched as the Wraith jumped and twitched with all the bullets hammering into him. John still watched as the Wraith finally fell backwards, toppling like a tree. Dead.
Dead, like Rodney.
"Major!" Teyla hollered at him. "Behind you!"
Even as John turned he wondered if she, if Aiden, saw him kill Rodney. He wondered if they'd think he did it on purpose, if he'd decided that Rodney was already beyond saving. He wondered if they'd think he figured Rodney wasn't worth trying to save.
It was hard to care about that, though. It was like his heart had stopped, been blown open like Rodney's head. John felt like he should've had a fist-sized hole in his back where the bullet punched its way out. But he couldn't feel any pain yet. He couldn't really feel anything.
Except...Except that he emptied his entire magazine into the one Wraith that was trying to sneak up on him. Except that he kept shooting even after the fucking thing was lying perforated on the ground, even after it was more than obvious it was dead. And he liked it. It felt just a little like revenge.
After that, John just...walked. Into the woods, since woods were surrounding them. He heard Aiden calling to him--Teyla too--but he ignored them both. They weren't warning him about more Wraith, anyway.
They were telling him something about Rodney. But Rodney was dead.
He kept walking. The woods were thick here, dark even during the bright light of day. Peaceful, if you didn't look at the three Wraith bodies he had to step around. Aiden and Teyla worked well together; John was glad he chose them for his team.
It looked like the Wraith were waiting in ambush, for Teyla and Aiden to come back from the village. John wondered if Teyla's special Wraith sense warned them before the Wraith attacked. Unless it was Rodney's shout.
His brain kind of stuttered over that, so he just kept walking.
John didn't go far. Only until he found a tree big enough to lean one hand against while he quietly puked into the underbrush. He kept heaving until all he threw up was green bile.
Then he sagged against the tree, his hand still pressed to the bark. It was solid under his palm, rough and damp like the forest had been through a heavy rain. It kept him from dropping to his knees. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve then tilted his head so his temple leaned against the tree, too. It was cold and he could feel the wet against his skin.
John closed his eyes. His body shook as he began to cry, but the only sound he made was the ragged gasps of his breathing.
Teyla. John had no idea how long she'd been there, and he thought dully that he was probably lucky she wasn't a Wraith. She didn't come any closer to him, but he could feel her presence behind him like a weight, like she was already touching him.
"We need you to bring the Puddle Jumper," she said right away. "We must get Rodney back to Atlantis as soon as possible."
"Why?" John asked. He pulled his hand from the tree and swiped at his eyes, even though he knew it was useless, that she'd already seen his tears. Part of him still cared about that. He turned around, feeling almost angry. "Rodney's dead."
Teyla's eyes widened, then she shook her head. "No. He's merely unconscious. Aiden says your bullet grazed his skull."
"We need to get him back to Atlantis," she repeated when John didn't move.
"He's alive," John said. Because he couldn't have heard that right. He'd seen him--
"Yes," Teyla said urgently. "But he may not remain so if we do not help him. Please, come now." She was already turning away, heading back to the clearing. She was a beautiful runner.
John's heart hurt like there was a bullet in it, but it was a good kind of pain now--pain like hope. He followed her as fast as he could.
"It's the hair, isn't it? Well, you can stop staring, all right? You--you're making me feel like a geek."
Sheppard smiled that lazy smile of his. "Sorry," he said, obviously completely unrepentant. "I'd hate for you to feel like a geek because of your hair."
Rodney stared at him a moment, his fork halfway to his mouth. He had no idea whether the major was being sarcastic or not. It was infuriating. He remembered what he was doing a moment later and stuffed the fork into his mouth. It was meatloaf today, perfectly awful, but he was starving and it was better than not eating at all.
"Well, stop staring," he said around his mouthful of food. "It's not bleeding again or anything, is it?" It'd taken forever for the wound to stop bleeding, even after Carson stitched it up. And it itched. It was still itching. He just tried not to think about it. Or the fact that there was a large patch on the left side of his head that'd been shaved to the skin with an enormous gauze bandage over it.
"No, it's not bleeding." Sheppard smirked gently then took another poke at his meatloaf, though he didn't actually eat any of it. He must've not like the food much, either. Rodney wished they were still serving MREs.
"Good," Rodney said. He ate some more, chewing and swallowing as fast as he could so he wouldn't really taste any of it. When he looked up Sheppard was staring at his head again, right at the bandage.
Rodney blinked, then put his fork down so he could feel the side of his head. "It is bleeding, isn't it? It's started bleeding again and you just don't want to tell me."
"It's not," Sheppard insisted. "Quit whining about it." He looked down at his plate, using his fork to plow little furrows into his mashed potatoes.
"I'm not whining," Rodney said, affronted. "I just don't like the idea of blood dripping down the side of my head, okay? It's disgusting." He took another mouthful.
"It's not bleeding," Sheppard repeated, looking up again. "And stop wolfing your food. You're going to choke to death."
"I'm hungry," Rodney said. "And who are you, anyway? My mother?" He took a large mouthful and swallowed it nearly whole just to annoy Sheppard.
"No," Sheppard said, in his lilting voice that was definitely sarcastic, "but you already nearly died once this week, and I don't want to give you the Heimlich maneuver."
Rodney grinned as he swallowed. "Well, that makes two of us." And then he was the one who had to look down at his plate, because he could so easily imagine John standing behind him, John's arms wrapped around him, maybe John's chin resting on his shoulder.
And Rodney actually wouldn't mind that at all.
He took another forkful of the mystery meat to cover for anything that Sheppard might have seen in his face and waited for Sheppard's reply.
When none came Rodney lifted his head again...And Sheppard was staring right at his bandage.
Rodney rolled his eyes. He pointed at Sheppard with his fork. "You're like Pavlov's dog," he said, then swallowed and dropped his fork again so he could cover the bandage with his palm. "There, okay? It's gone. Nothing to see here, move along...Okay? You can stop inspecting your handiwork." He sighed in annoyance before going back to the last of his lunch. As if he hadn't already been feeling self-conscious--
"I gotta go," Sheppard said out of nowhere. He stood instantly, pushing his chair back. "See you later." He sounded like seeing Rodney later would be a terrible chore.
Rodney sat in surprise as he watched Sheppard all but run out of the mess hall. For a second he wanted to chase after him, make sure he was okay. Rodney couldn't have possibly, well, hurt Sheppard's feelings, could he? He was always saying things like that and Sheppard knew it. And nothing bothered the major anyway. The man was like Teflon.
And it wasn't that Rodney blamed Sheppard for what happened. God knew he was fully aware that Sheppard had been trying to save his life...
Rodney shrugged finally and went back to eating. He pushed his tray aside and pulled Sheppard's uneaten meal to him. He was still hungry.
And it was probably nothing, anyway. Sheppard probably just realized he had to be somewhere. After all, Rodney was the only one of the team who had nothing to do until Carson declared him fit for exploration again.
That couldn't come soon enough, as far as Rodney was concerned. He wanted to get back out there, find new technology, do the kind of things they'd brought him out here to do. He couldn't wait for things to return to normal, for...For Sheppard to stop staring at him.
Rodney shook his head. He stabbed his fork angrily into a chunk--chunk, ugh--of mashed potatoes. He missed Sheppard. He missed being with him, even the sarcasm and constant insults. He just...missed him. The occasional few moments between briefings or whatever, or abortive meals, just hadn't been the same.
He missed Teyla and Aiden too, of course. But Sheppard was different. He was...
Well, John was just different. That was all. Rodney didn't want to think about it.
Atlantis had public restrooms. It made sense, really, given a city that size, but John had always found it kind of funny, anyway. It was so very human. So normal.
Now he was just glad he didn't have to try to make it all the way to his quarters to throw up, even if it was only more bile. He couldn't actually remember the last time he'd eaten more than half of anything, but John was feeling kind of sick so it'd probably been awhile.
Maybe he'd end up 'passing out from manly hunger'. Wouldn't Rodney love that.
It was just that he'd been having trouble keeping food down because his stomach was tied up in knots all the time. He was having trouble sleeping, too.
John was so damn tired.
PTSD, probably. Which was also kind of funny, considering it was Rodney who'd almost died and the guy was just fine.
But Rodney had barely come out of the infirmary and it'd gotten so bad that John couldn't even stand to be around him anymore. He kept looking at that white bandage and all he could think about was Rodney's head snapping back, his body dropping to the ground. John hadn't even heard the last thing Rodney said to him before he left the mess. Hell, he couldn't even remember what he'd said to Rodney, if he'd even given any kind of excuse. He just had to get out of there before he puked his guts out.
The toilet--which also looked remarkably normal, considering it'd been built a million years ago by aliens--flushed with a short wave of John's hand. It made him smile a little.
The taps worked the same way, too, and John spit and rinsed until the cold water made his mouth hurt. Then he leaned his hands against the sink and looked in the mirror.
He really did look sick. He was pale, with dark rings under his eyes. He wondered when people were going to start noticing.
"Get over it," he said to his reflection. "Just fucking get over it."
"You look like hell," Weir said to him without preamble a day later. "I'm not authorizing you for any missions until Carson's sent you go to Dr. Heightmeyer to sort this out."
John blinked at her. "I'm fine," he said. He deliberately uncrossed his arms, leaned back in the chair and tried to look as cheerful as possible. He gave her his best, most beguiling smile. "I'm just a little off my game. That's all."
He couldn't let her keep him from flying. Flying made him feel almost normal; he had to be able to do it.
He'd flown a mission a day since they got back from the planet--some to the Athosians on the mainland, bringing supplies and the like, some to map out the territory from the air, some to explore other parts of the planet. He'd tried his damnedest to go alone, but sometimes he'd been forced to take Teyla, or Aiden, or one of the Marines. He didn't want anyone to get suspicious. He'd thought he was good enough company: able to keep up his end of the conversations, laugh when someone said something that was meant to be funny.
Looked like he was wrong.
"That's bullshit and you know it," Weir said. John was mildly surprised at her language. "I've had three people come to me in the last two days, telling me that you're not yourself--that you haven't been yourself since Rodney was nearly killed by the Wraith."
Since I shot him, John thought. He figured two out of the three were Aiden and Teyla. He wondered if the last one was Rodney. Probably not.
He shrugged. "The mission didn't go so well." Which was as close as he wanted to get to telling her what was bothering him. To telling anyone.
He could still see Rodney falling like someone dead every time he closed his eyes.
For a moment Weir looked at him like he'd gone nuts, right there in her office. "I'd say that's an understatement," she said finally. "And the longer we sit here, the more certain I'm becoming that something's very wrong, Major." She took a breath, her expression softening. "Look," she said, voice going gentle, "I know you're close to your team, it can't have been easy--"
"I shot him," John said. "I shot at the Wraith and missed and came within an inch of blowing Rodney's head off." He'd calculated exactly how close he came--more times than even he could count--but he was smart enough not to mention that. "Why don't you tell me how easy you think that was?"
Weir's eyes widened, then she got herself back under her immaculate control. "Which is why I think you need to talk to someone, John," she said, as if he hadn't interrupted her. "Obviously this is bothering you a great deal, enough that your behavior is affecting others." She shook her head while he stared at her. "I'm sorry. I can't allow any further missions until you've been cleared by the medical staff."
John licked his lips. His heart was hammering so hard it hurt. She wasn't going to let him fly. "I'm okay," he said. God, he hoped he really didn't sound that desperate. "Things have been a little rough, lately. I admit it. But I'm dealing with it. I just...I just need some time."
"And you're getting it." Weir nodded like it'd been decided already, which it probably had been the second he walked through the door. "I can't afford to have any of my people operating in less than top condition. I'm sorry." This time her voice wasn't gentle.
He tried to smile but was sure he only managed a freakish stretching of his mouth. "You have to let me fly."
"I will," she answered immediately. "When Carson agrees that you're fit to do so." Her face hardened, just a little. "Right now Heightmeyer's your only option, Major."
John closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath so he wouldn't start screaming at her.
His only option. But he couldn't talk about it. He couldn't. He was already thinking about it all the time--Rodney almost dying, in an endless fucking loop in his head--and she wanted him to talk about it, too?
No. There was no way. He couldn't stand it.
John felt sick again: a miserable, acid roiling in his gut. There was sweat at his temples, behind his ears and down his back underneath his black shirt. He hoped she couldn't see it.
"Yes ma'am," he said, because he knew she hated the military formality and it was the only weapon he had. His voice didn't even sound close to normal. He stood. "Permission to be dismissed, ma'am?" He was laying it on thick, now, but he didn't care. He was too angry.
Weir looked up at him. "Get better," she said simply, like an order from her was what would do it.
John walked out without answering her.
John had barely cleared her office when he heard Rodney hollering after him.
He didn't even slow down. He was going to the nearest balcony because he had to get outside, breathe some uncanned air before he went nuts. His skin felt itchy and tight, and now he had a headache coming on. If he didn't get some sea air in his lungs he thought he might explode.
Or go postal on someone. Possibly Rodney, who'd run a few steps to catch up with him.
"Just the man I wanted to see," Rodney said, as if he couldn't tell that John was trying very hard to ignore him. Maybe he really couldn't--Rodney was enough of a genius to be genuinely clueless sometimes.
Rodney sounded cheerful as hell, and John could just imagine the goofily eager grin on his face. But he kept his eyes straight ahead.
It was a little easier if John didn't look at him.
"I'm busy," he snarled. A total lie, but it wasn't like he cared.
"Really," Rodney said. "I had no idea lounging on the balcony was such a pressing concern--since that's where we're headed, isn't it? Look," he added, not missing a beat, "this'll only take a few minutes. A half hour at most. Maybe an hour. But the balcony will still be there. This, on the other hand--"
John had heard that kind of preface enough times to know exactly what Rodney was talking about. "You've got the gene now," he snapped at him. "Do it yourself."
"I already tried," Rodney said. He was beginning to sound annoyed. Good, maybe he'd go away. "I can't seem to trigger the mechanism." And now that geeky happiness in his voice was back again. "It really has the most unique design--"
Rodney actually sniffed. "I'd rather not get blown up, thank you."
John gritted his teeth, then stopped walking and turned in one motion, halting Rodney with a hand on his chest. "Look," he snarled. "I don't feel like being your trained chimp today, all right? I'm not in the mood." He spit the words out through his clenched teeth: "Get. Someone. Else."
Rodney blinked. He even backed up a step. "Are you sick?"
"No." John whirled and started walking again.
Rodney caught up to him in two steps, damn him. "You don't look so good."
"I'm fine." They were almost at the balcony, thank God. John triggered the door with a thought and took a grateful breath as soon as it slid open. A gust of wind hit him and he shivered.
Rodney kept up with him right to the railing. He didn't even glance at the view. "Then what the hell's your problem?" He sounded irritated. If only he'd be irritated enough to leave.
John smirked humorlessly. That was probably going to become one of their favorite phrases. "Weir relieved me of duty, okay?" He looked away from Rodney, out over the water. He wiped his upper lip with his sleeve then shivered again as the wind hit his chest. It was colder out here than he'd thought.
"She did?" Rodney looked confused. "She's a civilian--can she do that? Why?" he asked before John could answer the first two questions.
"Apparently, some people think I've been off my game ever since the last Wraith attack." John forced himself to look at Rodney long enough to glare at him, in case Rodney really was one of the three who ratted him out. "She says I have to get the shrink's approval before I can go off-world again." Or fly. He tried not to think about that part.
"Oh," Rodney said. His voice was surprisingly quiet. "I'm sorry." And God, he really sounded like he meant it.
He put his hand on John's shoulder. It was awkward and stiff but his palm was solid and warm through the cloth of John's shirt, and John was still looking at Rodney's face, right at his blue eyes, and for a second he wanted to tell Rodney exactly what was wrong, tell him everything.
He looked away again. "Yeah, well," he said. His voice was a little rough. "There you go."
"Why?" Rodney asked again.
Because of you, John thought. Because I was sure I'd killed you and now I'm losing it. "None of your God-damned business," he said.
Of course Rodney ignored him. "Is it..." he hesitated. His hand on John's shoulder moved a bit and John stopped himself from leaning into it. "Is it...because of what happened to me?"
John was sure Rodney could feel the shudder that went all the way through him. The sudden clench in his guts was almost enough to make him gag again. He had to swallow before he could speak and his mouth tasted sour. "Right," he said. "Because every fucking thing revolves around you."
Rodney snatched his hand back. John tried not to miss it. "Well, forgive me for trying to be sympathetic," he snapped. "I can see with that winning attitude you'll be considered fit for duty in no time."
"Guess you've been rubbing off on me," John said. He wiped his palm across his forehead, smearing sweat. Rodney sure as hell wasn't making his headache better.
"Well, enjoy your time off, Major," Rodney sneered. He pushed away from the railing and stalked back inside. "Since you're obviously going to have a lot of it!" he called over his shoulder.
John ignored him.
He took a deep breath, trying to savor the quiet, the fresh air. Except he had that damn headache now, and it was too freaking cold.
He hadn't accomplished anything all day.
Rodney had, however, been pacing a great deal. He supposed the exercise had to count for something.
Sheppard seemed to have the talent to make Rodney angry like no one else on Earth. Well, fine, no one else on Atlantis. Or in the Pegasus Galaxy, if you wanted to be really specific, though Bates and Kavanagh had been serious contenders more than once.
This wasn't anger, though, what he was feeling. Not really, anyway. This was... What?
Whatever it was, it'd made a morass of his insides so bad that Rodney had grabbed a protein bar for dinner, rather than having to face what passed for food in the mess hall. And even that was currently an acid-soaked lump in his stomach.
What happened to him had nothing to do with Sheppard's being forced into counseling. He knew that. It wasn't like Sheppard was purposely shooting at him.
And Sheppard even confirmed that for him, anyway. Rodney nearly getting killed--twice, mind you--had no bearing whatsoever on whatever was troubling him. Well, Sheppard hadn't exactly said that, no. Not in so many words, but he'd still managed to make it more than clear enough.
The worst part was, that's what Rodney was upset about: precisely the fact that whatever was bothering Sheppard had nothing to do with him.
They were meant to be friends, right? Hadn't Sheppard told him that at the party a few weeks ago? That he considered Rodney a friend? Well, apparently in Sheppard's world that meant you could nearly put a bullet through someone's skull and end up a basket case about something else entirely. Whatever that happened to be.
It was truly idiotic of Rodney to be miserable about that, that he wasn't the catalyst for Sheppard's problem. Cruel, even, in a way. Rodney knew this. He was also perfectly aware that it was beyond stupid for him to even wish he might matter that much.
He should've known better, that was all. He should've damn well known better.
Rodney huffed out a sigh, scrubbing his fingers through the hair on the back of his head. The heel of his palm brushed against his bandage and he grimaced. He turned at the end of his worktable and started back the other way again.
Maybe Sheppard was just a little freaked out by the whole idea of being attacked by the Wraith again, especially the way it happened this time. Maybe he was just feeling vulnerable. That even made a little bit of sense. Not that Sheppard made much sense to Rodney at the best of times.
But the really, really worst part, was that now Rodney was worried. And Rodney really, really didn't like worrying. In the past two years, whenever he'd been worried about something it was because it'd been literally life-or-death: like the world blowing up, or a city about to be flooded, or six people trapped half-in, half-out of an event horizon with two minutes before they all died.
Or like John Sheppard lying on the floor of the Jumper bay, being electrocuted once, twice, and his heart still not beating.
Rodney stopped pacing abruptly and put his palms flat on the table. He leaned heavily on his arms. His stomach hurt.
He hated this. "Damn you, John Sheppard," he gritted out. He wasn't even sure why he said it, but it made him feel a little better, anyway.
Then he straightened up and left his lab and all the work he should've been doing, and headed to Sheppard's quarters.
He didn't even know what he was going to say.
The door was locked tight, no sliver of light coming from the tiny gap above the floor. It wasn't that late--maybe Sheppard wasn't even there.
Maybe he was talking to Heightmeyer. Rodney realized he hadn't even considered that Sheppard might actually do that. Rodney liked her well enough, but the idea of going to someone he actually knew for...counseling, or whatever the PC word was, made him so uncomfortable that he couldn't imagine Sheppard not feeling the same. He wondered if that was something they actually had in common, or if he was just projecting his miserable little view of the universe onto Sheppard because...
Well, didn't you always want the people you cared about to be more like you?
Rodney didn't even try to feel guilty as he used his artificial gene to mentally open Sheppard's door. If the major was sleeping, hopefully he wouldn't wake up and Rodney could just leave. If he did wake up, well, at least Rodney could find out...whatever it was he came here to find out. That Sheppard was okay? But Sheppard wasn't okay--that'd already been made painfully obvious.
There was really no good reason, Rodney realized, for him to be there at all.
He wanted that to stop him, he really did, but the door slid open like temptation and then it was far too late to be reasonable because the crisp light from the corridor flooded into Sheppard's room.
Sheppard was asleep--or at least had had been, considering how bright it was in his room now. Rodney winced, belatedly wishing he'd thought of that.
But Sheppard didn't move. He was an almost indistinguishable lump under what looked like almost every blanket in the city, with only ridiculous tufts of his perpetually messy hair sticking out from beneath the covers. Rodney inhaled, and he realized the room smelled like sweat.
"Close the door," Sheppard mumbled. "S'cold. 'M trying to sleep."
"You are sick!" Rodney went to the bed, leaving the door open behind him to get some fresh air in the room. He crouched down so his head was at the same level as Sheppard's. Sheppard pulled the covers down enough so that his dark eyes peeped out like a wary animal from its burrow. They were heavy-lidded and watery from sleep.
"Don't shout," he whispered. "Hurts my head." His voice rasped along with his breathing, though God knew that could've just been the weight of all the blankets squeezing the air out of his lungs.
Rodney put his hand on Sheppard's forehead. His hair was damp with sweat, and his skin was astonishingly hot against Rodney's palm. "We've got to get you to the doctor," he said. His voice was hushed, but that was only partly for Sheppard. The rest was a kind of terrified awe.
"No." Sheppard tried to roll away from him, but stopped with an exhausted groan. "I can't talk to her. I don't want--" Trying to string two sentences together seemed to have sapped his strength and his eyes slid shut. He just lay there panting. "God, it hurts."
"What hurts?" Rodney asked, then winced. "I mean, it's okay! Don't try to talk. You don't have to talk. Just breathe. Keep doing that." He stood and hit the intercom near Sheppard's door, then made a fist because if how badly his hand was shaking. "Medical emergency in Sheppard's quarters," he barked into it. His voice sounded harsh and loud and he lowered it for the sake of the man breathing raggedly behind him. "The major's extremely ill," he added, because the woman who answered didn't sound concerned enough. She still didn't sound concerned enough, but all that really mattered was that she said a medical team would be there soon. Not more than five minutes.
Rodney palmed the comm off and went back to Sheppard, kneeling this time so his legs wouldn't hurt. He yanked away the top four--no, five--covers, dumping them on the floor at the foot of the bed. The waft of heat that puffed up from Sheppard's body was more than a little horrifying.
"Fuck off, Mitch, I'm cold," Sheppard muttered. "Don't..." He panted out hot air, then tried to burrow under the one remaining blanket.
"You have a fever," Rodney said, wondering who Sheppard thought he was talking to. "You need to cool down." He grabbed the last blanket but settled for just pulling it off Sheppard's face. At least that way the man could breathe. Sheppard's face looked like milk, like there was no blood in his body.
"Rodney?" Sheppard rasped at him. He looked like he was fighting to get his eyes open.
"It's okay," Rodney said. "Don't talk. The medics will be here soon."
Sheppard just goes on like Rodney hadn't spoken. "Rodney. You know I...didn't want to shoot you. Right?" He stopped to breathe every few words: rapid, huffing breaths that sounded like he wasn't getting any oxygen into his lungs. Like five minutes would be too long.
"What?" For a second Rodney didn't even know what the hell Sheppard was talking about. He was lying half-dead in a sauna of his own perspiration and he was worried about shooting Rodney? "Oh! That. Of course I know that!" Rodney said. He tried to keep his voice low, hoping that Sheppard could hear him anyway and that he wasn't too addled with sickness to understand. "You were trying to save my life. I'm...grateful for that. I never thought you were trying to hurt me."
And he was grateful. It suddenly occurred to him that he never bothered to let Sheppard know.
"S'good," Sheppard murmurs. His hand snaked out from the blanket, groping blindly, and Rodney instinctively took it. Sheppard's palm was clammy with sweat. "When it got you..."
"Shh," Rodney said. "Save your strength."
"It was like Sumner." Sheppard said. His voice sounded like wet sand, like the waves dragging at it. "I couldn't..." He had to stop to breathe. "Couldn't. Not you."
"It's all right," Rodney said. "I understand." Actually, he had no idea what Sheppard was talking about, but Sheppard was fading and Rodney had the sudden, terrible thought that this might be the last time he ever got to speak to him. And he couldn't bear the idea of Sheppard dying, thinking that Rodney blamed him.
Rodney couldn't bear the idea of Sheppard dying at all.
But Sheppard wasn't dying, Rodney was sure of it. Really. He just wasn't used to being around incredibly sick people. And he was prone to overreaction. It was one of his things.
Sheppard couldn't possibly be dying.
Sheppard forced his eyes open a millimeter. "I like you more than I should."
Rodney blinked. He had absolutely no idea what that meant, either. He put his other hand on Sheppard's forehead. It might've been hotter, maybe.
"I, ah, like you too," Rodney said. He hoped it was the right answer.
It was, because Sheppard's bloodless lips curved up into a hint of a smile. "Cool," he wheezed. Then what little grip he had on Rodney's hand loosened and Sheppard's eyes shut again.
"Sheppard?" Rodney said, alarmed. "You're not dying, are you? This isn't it, right? John? John!"
"Should've danced with you..." Sheppard sighed out, and then there was nothing but the wet scrape of his breathing.
Rodney stood up, ignoring his sore knees. "John!"
He was just about to shake him when the medical team rushed in.
Everything hurt. His joints, his muscles ached. Moving was slow, grinding agony. And he was so cold. The base thermostat must've been broken; he couldn't get warm. All he could smell was his own sweat, and when he licked his lips he could taste it.
He was so weak, too weak to do anything. And he was in so much pain.
He kept begging Ford to kill the damn bug already, get it off his neck. It didn't matter what happened--he was dying anyway. He just didn't want to die like this, helpless and hurting like this. Just shoot it, he told him. Use your knife, use anything. But Ford wouldn't. He wouldn't help him. He just
Kept going down the steps, to where the gate was, walking into the black entity. John was calling to him, trying to get McKay to get out, to come back because the shield wasn't going to work, but McKay wouldn't and now all John could see was the pathetic green flicker of the shield just before it went out and a second later McKay disappeared completely and John knew he was dying, burning to death, that he
Heard Ford in the corridor, with Stackhouse, trying desperately to get out of the way before the entity hit them. McKay's was telling Ford how to get the door open, but it wasn't working, Ford couldn't make it work, and then Ford said that the entity was right there and then they were just screaming
At Teyla to get out of the way, damn it, he was trying to shoot the Wraith attacking her. But she couldn't hear him or she wouldn't listen, and she just keept fighting with a will and strength that awed and amazed and terrified him because she was fighting so hard but there was no way she could win and then she was on the ground and the Wraith was hovering over her and John was trying to shoot but he couldn't shoot and he
Had less than ten seconds before Rodney died. But he knew if he took the shot the bullet would hit Rodney and kill him, but if he didn't shoot then the Wraith would kill Rodney anyway and he didn't know what to do and there was nothing he could do and Rodney was going to die and he couldn't do anything
Except beg, and shout, and command, and scream, and fight, as hard and as much as he could with a body that was weak and aching and so cold and betraying him. And he kept telling them to stop hurting him, to let him go, that he had to get to his team, that they were all dying and he had to help them...
But nobody listened to him. Nobody ever listened.
"I don't understand," Rodney said, though he did; he just couldn't believe it. "Sheppard caught this thing from a tree?"
Carson nodded. He hadn't slept and looked haggard--his chin was covered with stubble and his eyes had heavy shadows under them. Well, one of them. The other one was swollen shut where Sheppard managed to clock him sometime during the night.
Rodney didn't know when Carson got his shiner, exactly. The night was pretty much just a long, anxious blur in his head. He remembered Sheppard shouting a lot. Or screaming. Fighting like his life depended on it.
Rodney knew Carson hadn't slept because he hadn't, either. Not since following the medical team down to the Infirmary. He only left when Carson threatened to sedate him if he didn't get out of the way.
So Rodney spent most of the night pacing in the corridor, listening to Sheppard cry out and fight the medical staff in his delirium. His feet hurt and he was starving--he knew he'd have to eat soon or he'd get sick himself, and he didn't want to take anyone's time away from Sheppard. Sheppard needed help so badly.
Carson gestured at Teyla, though he was looking at Rodney. "The tree is the most likely culprit. The major is the only one who actually touched anything in the forest, correct?"
Teyla glanced at Aiden, who nodded, then she nodded at Carson. Everyone was being very quiet and grave. Rodney wanted to pace some more, maybe do a bit of shouting. Smashing something would've been nice.
Nobody had to ask him if he touched anything in the forest, of course, since he was unconscious in the grass at the time.
"He was leaning against one of the trees, when I came upon him. His hand was touching the bark." Teyla hesitated, glanced at Rodney. He just blinked at her. "He...wiped his face afterwards, and his eyes. With the same hand."
Yuck, Rodney thought. Figures the major wouldn't care about touching strange plants, getting God knows what on his hands. Of course, the idea of Sheppard going off tree-hugging while he was lying on the ground was a little perplexing, to say the least.
"The bacteria probably got into him that way, when he touched his face," Carson said. "Through the mucus membranes."
"Are we going to have an epidemic on our hands, Doctor?" Elizabeth asked. Her voice had that particular pitch it got when she was stressed, and she glanced over her shoulder at Sheppard, with an expression caught somewhere between anger and fear.
Sheppard, who was currently shifting restlessly on one of the cots, with bad morning stubble and looking as pale as the white sheet pulled up to his chest and the horrible, white tie-in-the back hospital gown they'd put on him. He had got cannula under his nose, like Rodney only thought they did in the movies, and there was an IV line in each arm. None of it looked like it was helping much.
Rodney didn't know if he finally stopped fighting everyone because of the illness or the meds or what, but somehow this relative tranquility was almost worse. It wasn't supposed to be like this--for Sheppard to be so pale and quiet, with people talking about him as if he wasn't even in the room.
"No." Carson sounded just as relieved as everyone else looked. "The bacterium can't survive outside of a host. It needs direct transmission. It's likely the major wouldn't have been infected at all if he hadn't been in direct contact with it."
Rodney touched the bandage on his head. He was suddenly very happy he didn't get shot in the woods.
"Well, that's something at least," Elizabeth said, sounding like it wasn't much of anything at all. She looked over at Sheppard again, not that he'd moved much. Her mouth pressed into an unpleasant line. "What's his prognosis?"
Rodney stepped forward a bit to listen.
Carson let out a breath and ran his fingers through his short hair. "At the moment, I'm afraid it's touch and go. I'm most worried about his fever. We've only just managed to get it under control, and it's still nearly forty-point-five degrees." His accent was thick with his fatigue, but far worse is the note of defeat in it.
"About 105 degrees Fahrenheit," Rodney said automatically.
"Thank you." Elizabeth nodded.
"Wait." Rodney whipped his head around to stare at Carson. "Wait, you said Forty-point-five? And that's 'under control?'" He took another step forward, closer to Carson. "How high did it get?"
Carson hesitated. He glanced at Elizabeth, as if he needed her permission to speak. For a second Rodney thought about shaking him.
"Forty-one," Carson said quietly. "Slightly over. But not for very long."
"Jesus Christ," Rodney breathed. "That's 106 degrees," he said to Elizabeth and the others, "in case you were wondering." He gave a sharp, incredulous bark nothing like a laugh. "He's dead, isn't he?" Rodney turned around again, thrusting a hand out to point at the body on the bed. He was suddenly feeling an astonishing amount of rage and fear so sharp it hurt. "He's a fucking vegetable, isn't he? You fucking let his brain boil--!"
"Rodney!" Elizabeth admonished him.
"We are doing everything we can, Rodney!" Carson said, his voice just below a shout. He took a breath. "Yes, neurological and organ damage is a concern. But as I said, his temperature wasn't that high for that long. Most likely there'll be no lasting ill effects."
"'Most likely,'" Rodney parroted. "You don't even know what you're talking about."
"Rodney," Elizabeth said again. This time her voice had an edge that definitely meant he's crossed a line.
"Sorry," Rodney muttered. He forced himself to relax, though that was pretty much impossible. "I'm just a little concerned here."
"As are we all," Teyla said, in that grating diplomat's voice of hers. But she was standing next to Aiden as if she could get some comfort from the young man's proximity, and she had her arms crossed over her chest like she was barely keeping herself together. Just like Rodney felt. "I do not understand your means of measuring temperature, but it is obvious that Sheppard's condition is grave." She dropped her arms to her sides, small hands in fists like she was steeling herself. "Is McKay correct? Is the major dying?"
Aiden looked at Teyla, his brown eyes big and scared. He reminded Rodney uncomfortably of a lost puppy, twisting one of his ubiquitous hats in his hands.
"That's not true, right?" Aiden asked Carson. "I mean, we're all scared, but...His fever's gonna come down, and he'll be okay. Right?" He looked desperate for Carson to agree with him.
The look Carson gave Aiden could only be described as pitying. Rodney had to turn away because he couldn't stand it, but his eyes settled on Sheppard and that was even worse.
"The major is a very sick man, son," Carson said. "He's on the strongest antibiotics we have, but as yet they haven't made a dent against the pathogen. His temperature is steady for the moment, but it's still dangerously high. And we don't know for sure if the antipyretics--the anti-fever medication," he added for Aiden and Teyla, "will continue working. If his temperature increases again we may not be able to bring it down."
The last part he said looking directly at Rodney, as if his honesty was meant to be some kind of justification for how they were barely helping Sheppard at all.
"We're doing all we can," Carson said again. Rodney wondered who the hell he was repeating it for. "But we need to prepare for the possibility that he won't survive."
And that was it. Rodney's jaw worked, but there was nothing to say. He knew his eyes were boring into Carson's like acid, but the doctor's expression was only stoic with his own helplessness as he stared back at him.
"I'm sorry," Carson said.
Rodney walked out of the infirmary before he took a swing at him. John would want Rodney to be the better man.
Rodney thought he had no clue where he was going, until he was suddenly outside Sheppard's quarters. He didn't even hesitate before he opened the door.
The room was exactly the same as he left it, in the rush of medics and alarm. The air still had a tinge of sweat; there was the pile of Sheppard's blankets on the floor.
It looked horribly empty.
Rodney sat on the bed and put his head in his hands. Sheppard was never coming back here, to put the too-many blankets into the laundry and change his sheets. Someone else would have to pack up his things, his few effects. They'd be stored somewhere, in boxes. The room would be left with nothing inside it.
Because John would be dead.
Because John would be dead. Rodney kept trying to accept that, trying to make it work in his head. Major John Sheppard was going to die.
Rodney was not an optimistic person by nature, but he couldn't do this. He couldn't sit there in John's quarters and imagine John never being there again, never being on Atlantis, anywhere, ever again. It was like his mind wouldn't even accept the possibility.
He couldn't do it. It was like trying to imagine the sun going out.
Rodney made a noise that was something like laughing. Now he was comparing John to the sun.
Rodney looked up, startled. For a second he actually thought it was John in the doorway, but it was Aiden, with Teyla standing just behind him.
"Figured we'd find you here," Aiden said, and he even smiled.
Rodney's first thought was to answer with something sarcastic and biting, maybe even cruel. He could do that--fight his teammates away with words, armor himself with them. He didn't want to have to deal with their fear, their first inklings of the grief he couldn't even begin to fathom.
But he didn't do it. He spread one hand in greeting, then dropped both hands to his thighs and looked down at them.
"He will not die," Teyla said. Rodney glanced up at her. Her face was placid with conviction. "His spirit is too strong. He will not succumb to this illness."
"She's right," Aiden said, nodding vigorously. He grinned, though it didn't get near his eyes. "He's way too stubborn for a fever to take him out."
Rodney wanted to tell them how stupid they were, how insultingly naïve, that denying what was happening wouldn't change anything. But he looked at them both and he couldn't say it; couldn't steal even a useless hope from them.
So, "Of course he is," he said. It didn't even sound like it was him talking.
"Yeah," Aiden said. "You'll see." He nodded again, his head bobbing like a child.
Teyla took a step into the room, inhaling. "It is rank in here."
"I was going to take the blankets and sheets to the laundry," Rodney said. He wasn't, actually, but it was a plausible reason for him to be there. It occurred to him that maybe he should wonder why Teyla and Aiden knew exactly where he was, but he found he doesn't have the energy for it.
When he stood the room swayed unpleasantly. Teyla grabbed him before he toppled over.
"McKay?" Aiden was on his other side, helping him sit down heavily on the edge of the bed. An entire world of horror was in the way the young man said his name.
"I'm not sick," Rodney said quickly. "It's just low blood sugar--I need to eat."
Teyla backed off a step so she could look at him. Her eyes were wary and concerned. "You are certain?"
"Of course I'm certain," Rodney snapped. "This happens a lot, okay? I haven't eaten for thirteen hours."
His tone seemed to convince her as much as anything. "Stay here," she said. "I will bring you food."
"Thank you," he said, surprised. She nodded and gave him a tiny smile before she left.
Then it was just Rodney and Aiden.
"You sure you're all right?" Aiden asked him. "I could get the Doc--"
"No!" Rodney softened his voice when Aiden blinked at him, startled. "I'm fine," he said much more gently. "Honestly."
"Okay." Aiden backed off, standing. He rubbed the back of his neck, looking around the room. "Guess I'll take the blankets to the laundry."
"Sure," Rodney nodded, then watched as Aiden went to the end of the bed and quickly scooped all the blankets off the floor. He knew he should probably help, but he was dizzy enough that he didn't want to try standing again.
My friends, Rodney thought. He had no idea that it would mean so much--the fact that Teyla was going to get him breakfast, that Aiden was worried about him. Rodney had never even expected it. He wasn't even sure it was something he deserved.
He wondered, suddenly, if John had any idea how much they were all worried about him.
How much Rodney was worried about him. About losing him.
Aiden straightened up, carrying the six blankets in a crumpled pile. Six blankets. Rodney didn't know where John would've even gotten them all from. He must've felt so terribly cold. And all the while he was actually burning inside, pressure-cooking his internal organs with his own body heat. So sick his brain's thermostat didn't know which way was up anymore, so he buried himself under blankets, adding to the already intolerable temperature.
"And what the hell was he doing in the forest anyway, for Christ's sake?" Rodney exploded.
Aiden was nearly at the door, but he whirled, shocked, his arms full of the damp blankets.
"Can you tell me that? What the major thought was so incredibly important that he walked away from...From a fight to go commune with nature?" From me, Rodney thought, but he wouldn't say it. He might be shouting at poor Aiden for nothing, but Rodney wasn't a child and he wasn't an idiot, so he wasn't going to say that. "Did he have to take a piss, or something?"
Aiden looked at him steadily over the pile of blankets in his arms. He licked his lips. "He thought you were dead."
Rodney stopped, mouth open. "What?"
"He thought you were dead," Aiden repeated, nodding. He shrugged, shifting the blankets precariously in his arms. "He saw you fall when the bullet hit, but he didn't know it just clipped you, not until later. He thought you died."
Rodney stared at Aiden, blinking. "He really thought I was dead?"
"Yeah," Aiden nodded again. "He thought he'd killed you. That's why he left. I guess...I guess he didn't want to see it. Your body, I mean."
"My body..." Rodney gave his head a tiny shake tying not to think of himself dead, then looked back at Aiden. "I didn't know."
"We probably should've told you," Aiden said. "But we kind of forgot. We were more worried about getting you back, you know?"
"It's okay," Rodney said, waving a hand absently as he thought.
He didn't even notice when Aiden left.
He was standing in the middle of Carson's infirmary. He didn't remember how he got there.
The last thing John really remembered was crawling into bed, feeling like total crap. He'd finally realized he was coming down with something on the balcony when the dizziness started, but he'd never expected it to take him out so fast. By the time he'd made it back to his room he could barely walk straight and his entire body was aching.
He was in his uniform, jacket and all, which was a little weird considering he remembered taking off everything but his pants before lying down.
He also remembered Rodney coming into his quarters and talking to him about something, but John didn't remember what. And then, just... nothing.
He didn't know what time it was, though it felt late. Or that might've just been the deep quiet in the room. He wondered where everyone was. It would've been nice to have someone to tell him what was going on.
He looked around, taking in the empty beds, the shelves and the mix of Ancient and Earth technology. All he could hear was the quiet hiss of the cycling air. It was kind of eerie, actually.
John was thinking that maybe he should just leave when Dr. Beckett came in, walking fast. He looked like he could use a few hours of sleep, John thought. He hoped no one had been badly hurt or anything.
"Hey, Doc," he said, stepping forward. "Can--"
Carson walked right through him. It felt a little tingly.
John whirled around, stunned and frightened. Carson just kept on going.
--Right up to the bed with John lying on it, pale as milk and hooked up to a frightening number of tubes.
"No way. No fucking way." John sucked in a few very quick breaths. He--his body, for fuck's sake--looked really sick. His head kept tossing, with his lips moving like he thought he was speaking though if he actually was John couldn't hear it. He was sweating a lot, his hair all spiky wet with it. John was close enough so he could see it from where he was standing.
But John felt fine. He was fine. He was just standing about five feet from his very own body...
He turned around, deciding he really couldn't stand looking at himself like that. This was just some stupid, crazy dream he was having. It had to be--
Colonel Sumner was standing right in front of him. Close enough to touch, if John extended his arm.
John gave a very un-adult, very un-military yelp and leaped backward, just in time to have Carson walk through him again as he left the room. Carson looked upset, John noted dully, just before the doctor walked through Sumner, too.
"This isn't real," John said. "This can't be real. I'm on that fog planet and imagining all this, aren't I? You're just some part of this fantasy world I'm in." God damn it, Rodney was right. The aliens did pull a double whammy on them. "You'd better let us go," he said. "I told you our friends are gonna come--"
'Sumner' just looked at him. "You really are an asshole, Sheppard."
"What?" John blinked. "Hey!"
Sumner put a hand out, stopping him. "This isn't a fantasy, Sheppard. You're not on any planet." He gave a single, sharp nod of his chin over John's shoulder. "That's you, right there."
John looked over his shoulder, at the white and sweating version of himself on the bed. It--he--seemed to have nothing at all to do with him.
He turned back to Sumner. "What's happening? Why are you here?"
Sumner shrugged. "It's your head." He craned his neck a bit, peering over John's shoulder. "You really don't look so good."
John thought about that for a moment. "I'm dying," he said. It was kind of strange that the idea didn't surprise or frighten him.
Sumner sniffed, then nodded. "Yeah, like I said. You're an asshole."
"Screw you!" John said. "If you're here to take me across, or whatever the hell it is, fine. But I don't need your opinion."
"I'm not taking you anywhere," Sumner said. "Don't you get it? This is all in your head, Sheppard. I'm not even here."
"Even better," John snapped. "Then fuck off and leave me alone."
"What?" Sumner smirked nastily, reminding John a little of Rodney. "So you can die in peace? I don't think it's working like that."
"I thought this was all in my head."
"Sure," Sumner said. He grinned coldly. "So I guess that means you want me here."
John closed his eyes in frustration. "Great."
He opened them again when Sumner bumped him with his shoulder as he walked by, going to stand next to John's (the real, dying John, apparently) bed.
"You really look like crap," Sumner said conversationally. He turned his head to look at John (the not real one, who feels fine). "Why are you so eager to kick off, anyway?"
"I'm not!" John said. He didn't turn around, since he had absolutely no interest in looking at his body. "I don't want to die. It's just...There it is. If you can't change it, you can't change it. Why fight?"
"Well, that's the thing, Shep." Sumner moved so he was facing John again. "This sickness wouldn't be killing you if you fought it. But you're not. You're not even trying. You're just letting yourself waste away in a pool of your own sweat." He grimaced, glancing back at John's body. "That's a hell of a way to die, by the way."
"Better than getting the life sucked out of you," John shot back.
"'Not so sure," Sumner said, still looking at the John on the bed. "Never liked the idea of expiring in one of those dumbass hospital gowns. Besides," he looked at John again, "I didn't die like that, did I? You shot me first."
John had to look away. He's dead, he reminded himself fiercely. He's dead and he's not even here. This isn't happening. Somehow it didn't help.
He thought of Rodney. Being shot. Falling. "Yeah," John said huskily. "I'm good at that."
"Huh," Sumner grunted. "That's interesting. You don't feel guilty, do you?"
"Of course not!" John glowered at Sumner. "I didn't fucking aim at him! I would've hit the Wraith if it hadn't moved!"
"And yet." Sumner spread his hands. "Here we are."
"What?" John snarled at him. "You think I want to die because of Rodney? Because of what happened?"
"No," Sumner said blandly. "I'm not even here, remember? But yeah, now that you mention it, I think Rodney is exactly the reason you want to die."
"I don't want to die!" John shouted. "I just--!" He cut himself off, looked away again.
"I'm in your head, Shep," Sumner said, strangely gently. "You can't hide from yourself."
"I've lost friends before," John said. "This isn't about that."
"Come on." Sumner made a face. "Dex and Mitch? You didn't even like them. That was convenience and proximity, and a way to not have to worry about your crush on the base commander."
John gaped at him. "No! I--"
"Don't even try." Sumner interrupted him. He shook his head then tapped his temple. "This is all you, Shep. All you."
John looked at him for a beat. "Shit." He turned around, rubbing his mouth with his hand. He felt far more real than the sweating lump in the bed.
He was aware of Sumner--his hallucination of Sumner--standing behind him. Sumner put his hand on his shoulder.
"This isn't a game, here, Sheppard," Sumner said. "This is moment-of-truth stuff. Life or death. For real. Either you decide you're going to live, or you won't. Your temperature will skyrocket and your brain will fry and you'll be dead by lunchtime. You'll never see anyone you care about ever again." Sumner shook John's shoulders a bit, making John look at him. "Not ever. Is that what you really want?"
John looked back at him stonily. "It's better than the alternative."
"You mean watching them die, instead of you. Watching Rodney die, instead of you," Sumner said. It wasn't a question.
"Yeah," John said.
Sumner considered him for a moment. "I didn't know you flyboys were such pussies."
John shrugged Sumner's hand off his shoulder. "You're not real. You don't know anything."
Sumner smiled faintly. "So, I guess you're the one calling yourself a chickenshit."
"I'm not a coward!"
Sumner shrugged. "I don't care, Shep. I don't even exist outside your head. You're the one taking the easy way out. You're the one who'd rather die than face the idea of the man you're falling in love with maybe dying first."
John gasped. It felt like his heart clenched up, like he really was dying, and he couldn't help but look at the John on the bed.
But nothing there had changed. It was just him. Just this part of him.
"You always knew," Sumner said, still standing next to him. "You just didn't admit it. You never admit it."
"I..." Maybe this was what dying really felt like, if he--his real self--was actually sliding over the edge. It was kind of like when the bug was attached to his neck: the same kind of numbness but without any pain.
"I don't want him to die," he said at last, because it was the only thing he could say. "I couldn't take it."
Sumner nodded. "Well," he said, "how do you think he feels about you?"
"I don't know," John said softly. "I don't know how he feels."
"And you won't, either."
Sumner's face was impassive. He nodded at the John on the bed. "You're dying."
Aiden and Teyla wanted to go visit John. Carson said it was okay, but Elizabeth was already there so they had to wait. They couldn't visit for very long, anyway--John needed his temperature taken every fifteen minutes, and Carson didn't want extra people around in case John got worse.
Elizabeth left just a few minutes ago, walking quickly. Rodney avoided her eyes.
Now Rodney was in the hallway with Teyla, not listening, though he couldn't help wondering what Aiden was talking about. He truly doubted John could hear him, anyway, despite what they said about people in comas. You had to be at home to answer the doorbell, didn't you? At least that was the only thing that ever made sense to him.
When his mother was in a coma in hospital, dying after a stroke, Rodney never went to see her. Of course there were a myriad of reasons for that. But his certainty that she would never have even known was the paramount one.
Rodney had never believed in willfully wasting his time.
And yet, here he was, in the corridor outside the infirmary, waiting for Teyla and Aiden to finish so he could have his turn. He was certain it was useless, meaningless, that John was too far gone for any of it to matter. But he still couldn't make himself leave.
Aiden came out, putting his cap back on. He smiled at them but his eyes were bleak and very old.
Teyla asked him if he wanted to go before her, but Rodney politely refused. So he waited some more, leaning against the wall. His feet were killing him.
It seemed to take no time at all before Teyla left, and when Rodney saw her face he wondered if she just couldn't bear it.
"He is strong," she said, and Rodney nodded. But he knew they were just words to her now, and when she looked at him she knew he knew it, too.
For the first time, Rodney wondered what happened to her parents; she only ever talked about her father, and that only in the past tense. He wondered how long she'd been alone.
It seemed like a very long walk to get to the side of John's bed. Carson had thoughtfully put a chair next to John's head, and Rodney sat gratefully.
John looked like he was dying. That was the only thing Rodney could think of. His face was almost translucent, like the deadly heat in his body was burning right through his skin. He was soaking in his own sweat. Rodney's sure John would've died already just from dehydration, if he weren't in the infirmary. He was so hot. Rodney could feel it from where he was sitting, like being next to a fire.
John's eyes moved sightlessly, back and forth under the half-closed lids, and his mouth seemed to be forming words though Rodney couldn't hear him speaking. Once in awhile John moved, with a kind of languid urgency that Rodney knew came from exhaustion.
No wonder he's dying, Rodney thought. John couldn't rest like this; his own body wouldn't let him.
"Hi, Sheppard," he said. He felt incredibly awkward and stupid, talking to someone who was so obviously not listening. Not able to listen.
He licked his lips, his left hand drumming nervously against his thigh. "I, ah..." He sighed. "I don't know what to say," Rodney confessed finally. "I'm certain you can't hear me, and I have to tell you I'm not even sure it would make a difference if you could." He rubbed the back of his head, feeling the bandage again.
He brought his hand down slowly, remembering what Aiden said. "I didn't know that you thought I died, back there," he said. "That must have been...difficult, thinking that what you tried to do to save me actually ended my life." He swallowed. "But you should know, that even...even if you had killed me, it would have been better than the Wraith. I only know what you said in the briefing, about how Colonel Sumner died, but I was there when that...hellish bug was sucking the life out of you. A nice, quick bullet to the brain would have been infinitely preferable to that."
He gave a tiny, uncomfortable laugh. "Well, that was morbid." But then he looked at John's slack and pained features, and thought that perhaps morbidity wasn't so out of place here. "It occurs to me that a bullet might be preferable to what you're going through now, too," he said, then closed his eyes. "Jesus. I can't believe I said that. I'm sorry."
"I'm not very good at this," Rodney said when he opened his eyes again. John was oblivious, enduring his fever dreams. "But...You can't die, okay? That's it. You just can't." He took a breath, wondering why he was even saying this, what possible good it could do now. "The thing is, I don't think we could get along without you. I mean, sure, the city would run and everything, though it'd be a pain not to have your ATA gene, but...But we wouldn't have you."
Rodney hesitated, then puts his hand over John's. He felt John's fingers twitching under his palm, weak and burning. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. It'd be terrible if anyone else heard this, what he was about to admit. "Elizabeth Weir may run this place, but you, you're like its heart." He smiled. "Everyone likes you. Well, maybe not Bates, but everyone else does. Elizabeth relies on your judgment--have you noticed how many times she lets you do whatever you want? And Teyla..." Rodney shook his head. "I think Teyla would die for you, because you saved her people when the Wraith attacked, and went right into a hive ship to get her. And of course Aiden would follow you to hell if you just smiled at him."
John's fingers clenched, and Rodney held his hand a bit tighter. "And me--" He couldn't speak suddenly, and when he swallowed it hurt. "God I'm stupid," he muttered. "You can't even hear me." But it still took a minute or two before he felt he could continue without embarrassing himself. "To me, you are...Well," he managed at last, "you're luminous. You're like light, and everyone around you gets reflected in it. Losing you would be like losing the sun."
There. He said it.
Rodney glanced down at John once, before he got up to leave, to get as far away from the infirmary as he could. John was still boiling hot. His body still shuddered in the grip of his burning dreams. He was still dying.
Nothing had changed. And yet, everything.
Carson stepped into the room, just as Rodney had almost reached the door.
"Excuse me," he said, moving neatly around him. The man was working by rote, Rodney thought. This was a deathbed vigil. Nothing approaching treatment now.
Rodney wasn't even angry anymore. The grief hadn't started yet, though, so he was kind of...hovering, he decided. Floating in between. He felt like someone about to be delivered a terrible blow: like he was curling in on himself, waiting for the rush of pain.
He stood in the doorway, waiting for it. The blow, the pain he knew was coming.
Like losing the sun, he thought. He still couldn't believe he said that, even when he was essentially speaking to no one.
Carson looked at the small thermometer. His whole body went still.
And Rodney waited.
Carson turned around. His eyes were very wide, but he was smiling.
"It's gone down," he said. "His temperature's gone down."
It was, he thought, pretty darn pleasant to be able to doze in the sun. He had to admit he was glad he was alive to do it.
John was even gladder that it was Rodney standing there, letting his shadow fall over John's face. "Hey, McKay," he drawled, grinning. "How are you this fine afternoon?"
"Good, good. Thanks." Rodney seemed a little distracted. He peered at the couch, squinting even though the sun was behind him. "You didn't drag this thing out here yourself, did you?"
John laughed. "No." He sighed and stretches, thrusting his arms and legs out like a cat. "Aiden got Weir's okay to haul it out here for me. And yes," he added before Rodney can ask, "I had one of the nurses help me get here so I didn't keel over."
That was the only thing he didn't like--it'd been nearly a week and a half since his fever broke, and he was still so weak that getting from the infirmary to the balcony was the extent of his daily routine. He hated having to sleep so much, and being so dependent on other people.
But he could live with it. He could live with all kinds of things, he'd realized. Even the fact that it'd be at least two weeks before he could even think about flying, according to the Doc.
He didn't mind that nearly as much as he'd thought he would.
"Well, that's good," Rodney said. He was wearing his jacket, even though the late afternoon was still warm. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets and he looked nervous about something. "How are you feeling?"
Rodney hadn't come to see John very much since he woke up. He kept saying he was busy, especially since Carson let him go off world again at least a week ago. He'd been exploring with Aiden and Teyla, sometimes going with other teams.
John was pretty sure Rodney had been avoiding him.
"Hungry," he said. "Got any of those protein bars on you?"
"Oh, sure." Rodney blinked, then went delving into one of his pockets. He took out a foil-wrapped bar and held it out.
John made sure their fingers touched when he took it. Rodney's eyes widened as he pulled his hand back. John just smiled.
"I, ah, could get you something from the mess, if you want."
"Naw," John waved it off. "This is great. Thanks." He lifted his bare feet from the end of the couch. "Sit down. Stay awhile. I could use the company."
Rodney just looked at him.
"C'mon," John said. "You're wearing me out, here."
That did it, of course. Rodney sat immediately, though he was as scootched against the far end of the couch as he could possibly get. He folded his arms stiffly across his chest.
John bent his legs so he could put his feet down in Rodney's lap. When Rodney's head whipped around he just smiled innocently at him and took a bite of the Power Bar. It didn't taste too bad, and he was kind of hungry.
Rodney sat at his end of the couch like a trapped animal. But his legs were nice and warm.
"So," John said, after he'd chewed and swallowed, "how was the day trip?"
"It was fine," Rodney said. He was staring out over the ocean. The sun would be setting in a few minutes, and already the sky had the yellowish glow John had come to associate with this planet. He would definitely have to go back in after that, though, so he wouldn't get too cold.
"Just fine?" John asked. "Ford told me you and Corrigan had a grand old time, what with finding nifty tech in the ruins and getting to talk about mysterious Canadian things."
"Yeah." Rodney chuckled despite himself. "He kind of got shanghaied into the Stargate program, same way I was, though his specialty wasn't in physics, of course, so we do have that in common."
He went on for awhile, relaxing as he talked, explaining about how some machine they found might be able to increase the capacity of the generators in the city, how excited Corrigan was with the writing, about some band called Rush they both really liked when they were teenagers. John settled back and half-listened, eating the Power Bar, letting the warm wash of Rodney's enthusiasm spread over him like a blanket.
By the end of it, Rodney was laughing at some joke that would only make sense to him and maybe three other people in the whole city, and his large hands were resting on John's feet.
Rodney's laughter died off. He looked down at his hands, at John's feet in his hands, and then at John's face. His expression was caught somewhere between embarrassment and fear. He snatched his hands back and crossed his arms.
"It's okay," John said immediately. He smiled as disarmingly as he could. "That was nice. I liked it."
Rodney looked shocked. "You sure?"
"Of course I'm sure." John wiggled his feet. "Besides, you were keeping 'em warm." He grinned. "Wouldn't want me to get sick again, right?"
"No," Rodney said, though he sounded a little dubious. "I suppose not." But he put his hands back and that was all that mattered.
John settled further down on the couch with a happy sigh, crumpling the empty wrapper in his hand. He turned his head so he was looking out through the balcony railing so he could watch the sunset. It would be starting very soon.
"So," he said casually, as if it was a natural part of their conversation, "you really think I'm luminous?"
He expected Rodney to snatch his hands back again, wondered if he was still strong enough to keep Rodney from leaving. He really didn't want Rodney to leave.
But Rodney didn't move. John wasn't not looking at him, but he felt him go completely still. "You heard that?" Rodney asked. His voice was quiet with awe.
John turned his head, and now he was looking at Rodney's face, and Rodney's eyes were very wide and there was almost a horror in them.
The flip response John was going to make died in his mouth. "Not all of it," he said instead. "At least, I don't think so. It was kind of like a dream--like I was watching you from another part of the room." He smiled. "But, yeah."
"Oh," Rodney said, very softly. He turned away. "Oh, my God." He inhaled sharply. "I didn't know," he whispered. "I didn't know you could hear anything."
"I'm sorry," John said, because Rodney suddenly looks so sad. "I guess I shouldn't have told you." He wondered if he should pull his feet back, let Rodney escape; forget any of this ever happened.
Rodney turned back to him, just looked at him for a long moment. His smile was surprisingly shy, barely a flicker on his face. "No," he said. "It's fine."
"Cool," John said.
"But you know," Rodney said quickly, "that I was talking about how, well, everyone else sees you, really. Not me. I see you as, in more of a professional capacity--"
"Shh," John said gently. "Watch the sunset."
Rodney stopped talking.
The sunset was beautiful.
A week later, John walked into Weir's office, proud that he made it there under his own steam. He still tired easily, though, and he was glad when she asked him to sit down.
"I'll talk to you," he said, before she could ask him how he was feeling. "About what happened. Not Heightmeyer. Let me talk to you."
Weir slowly straightened. "I'm not trained for this."
"I don't care," John said, pleased she hadn't refused outright. "You don't judge, and you listen. And you're always objective. That's all you need, right?"
"I suppose," Weir said. She thought for a moment. "I'm willing, if this is what you want."
"It is." John nodded seriously. "I trust you with this."
"Okay." Weir leaned forward, clasped her hands on her desk. "When?"
John shrugged. "How about now?"
Weir glanced at her laptop, then closed the screen. "Now is fine."
"Okay." John took a deep breath. And then he told her everything.