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When he awoke, it was with a mouth that felt like it was full of sand, and the urgent need to pee. The image of dry, dusty roads curving their way through forbidding, chalk-like rock formations wavered through his mind, as intangible as a mirage. He blinked several times and licked his lips, trying to spread some moisture. Whatever he’d been thinking of was gone. Must have been a dream.

He glanced around the room in which he lay. There were a series of beds there, several of them occupied. To his right, a man with short brown hair lay curled up on his side, eyes closed as he slept. Across the room, another man lay sleeping as well—the faint sound of snoring could be heard over the background noise of monitoring equipment. All of them seemed to be wearing the same, generic white clothing. A hospital? That didn’t feel right. Infirmary. That was the word he was looking for. He was in the infirmary.

The lighting was dim for a hospital setting—presumably because they were all sleeping? There were no external windows. Aside from the monitoring equipment, which displayed a wide variety of colored read outs on all of the patients present, the only other lighting came from some panels that had a series of parallel bars of light on them. On the cabinet beside his bed, there was a familiar-looking plastic bottle with a narrow neck and a wide opening. Something told him he could pee in that, but he’d be damned if he would. He’d much rather get up and find the appropriate facilities. And get some answers.

He saw a man wearing a long white coat with a stethoscope around his neck take note of something on a data pad on one of the other patients. He thought about calling out to the guy—obviously someone who worked here. Something held him back, however. The man left his line of sight, heading into some sort of smaller office.

Two people came into the room from the far entrance; a man and a woman. They both smiled when they saw him watching them, and approached his bed.

“Colonel, you’re awake.” The woman seemed pleased, but there was a note of relief in her voice as well. Good to know. She wasn’t very tall, but she moved with the grace of an athlete. Martial arts training somewhere in her background. She wore a uniform jacket of some kind, with a patch on the right shoulder that he couldn’t quite read. It looked like it had a picture of a flying horse on it. A pegasus.

Underneath the professional looking jacket, she wore some sort of collar thingy made of fabric that went down to a bodice in rich, though muted, colors—teal, rust, and bronze. Her coffee-colored hair fell to just below her shoulders. She emanated warmth and concern for him. Part of him really wanted to believe in that.

“Mmm-hmm.” He let his voice seem drowsier than he really was. “What happened?”

“Teyla distributed the plant in the ventilation system. It knocked you out for a bit.” The man who spoke was huge. He wore his dark hair in dreads pulled back from his face, and had a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. His clothing looked as though it had been pieced together haphazardly, swatches of fabric in natural fibers, and all in shades of brown. His tunic had no sleeves, revealing impressively muscular arms. He wore leather gauntlets and had a series of tattoos up one arm. A small, isolated tattoo was on his neck as well. For some reason the image of fighter planes came to mind; the way pilots would mark their kills on the nose of the plane. He eyed the tats again. That’s a helluva lot of kills.

The big guy’s words sank in, but they were meaningless. Obviously the dread-locked dude expected him to know what was going on.

He stalled for time. “How long have I been asleep?”

The big guy grinned, as though smiling at some secret joke. “About a day.”

“A day?” No wonder he had to pee. What the hell was going on here?

The big guy grinned even wider. He got the impression that the joke was on him. Wait, what had the guy said? Something about plants and the ventilation system.

“Hits some people harder than others.” Yep. There was definitely a smirk there. Oddly, it was reassuring. You don’t smirk at people you don’t like, unless you’re an evil warlord bent on taking over the world.

On second thought, this guy could be just that. He had a sort of warlord vibe going on there.

The woman, presumably Teyla, spoke again. “How are you feeling, John? How is your memory? “

Okay. He was a Colonel. His name was John. There had been some sort of incident with plants and the ventilation system. Something, maybe, that had affected his memory? These people seemed to know him. He’d been out for a day. Other than that, what did he know?

He knew he still had to pee, damn it.

“Well, pretty good, I think. I mean, things are a little fuzzy. If I forget your birthday next year ...” He let the drawl taper off.

Teyla exchanged a small glance with the big guy. “I see.” Her smile seemed a little forced. “Do you remember my name?”

He took a shot. “Of course. Teyla.” He tipped his head back slightly and opened the fingers of his right hand in a gesture of casual confidence.

“What about me? We’ve been through a lot together. You remember me?” The big guy was glowering at him, a bit like a sheepdog peering through a gate at a stranger. John had a sudden impression of being in a cave, hands bound, as this guy rifled through his kit. He blinked, and the memory was gone.

“Sorry, big guy,” he said. “I got nothing.” Why did he feel a sense of regret in saying that? For all he knew, these people were responsible for what had happened to him. Even as he thought that, something inside of him rejected the notion.

The expression on the man’s face flickered and shut down. He looked ever so slightly disappointed, and then the mood had vanished so quickly John wasn’t sure he’d really seen it. “S’okay,” the big guy said at last. “You’re not the first one who’s having trouble getting their memories back.”

“There’s more?” That was alarming. The need to get up and do something was becoming overwhelming. Do what? You need more intel.

Teyla nodded. “Yes. It would appear that this variant of Kirsan fever is far more virulent than the form that Ronon and I experienced as children.” She indicated the big guy when she said the name ‘Ronon.’ “Fortunately, the enchuri plant still worked as a cure, but there seems to be some residual effects among you. Most notably, those of you with the ATA gene. ”

John was reminded of some cartoon in which a person was depicted speaking to a dog, and the dog was shown as hearing only his name and ‘blah-blah-blah.’ He felt just like the dog. “No offense, guys, but how exactly do I know you?”

Ronon blew air forcibly out his lips and shot a glance at Teyla, who tried not to look concerned. She patted John on the arm. “I will go get Dr. Keller.”

The look she gave Ronon as she left clearly said watch him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ronon raised an eyebrow at him as John threw back the thin blanket covering his legs.

“Pee.” John said succinctly, disliking the slight wobbliness he felt on getting out of the bed. When was the last time he ate?

Ronon steadied him with a soldierly grip to his arm, which he appreciated. He waved off further assistance, however, and padded his way toward the door.

“Wrong way,” Ronon said.

John paused to look back at him.

“If you want to take a piss, it’s that way.” Ronon pointed to a narrow door at the opposite end of the room.

“Right,” John said, wishing he had something warmer to wear than this flimsy white outfit. “Just testing you.”

Ronon snorted. “You’ve been testing me a lot in the past few days.”

John didn’t respond to that. What could he say?

The tile was cold on his bare feet as he walked past the other beds. Most of them were unoccupied. The room had the air of a place in the aftermath of a big party, one that the hosts were now sleeping off. Things looked slightly out of place, medical waste bins were full to the brim, one of the cabinets was half open and the contents within were haphazardly arranged—as though someone had shuffled through them in a hurry, looking for something in particular. He had a feeling it hadn’t been a very fun party.

The cubicle where the toilet resided was small and utilitarian in nature. No mirror, and a strange sort of urinal. At least, John hoped that’s what it was. Seemed to function like one at any rate. There was nothing that resembled a sink. Frowning, he tucked himself in and poked around the small area. Giving up on finding a way to wash his hands, he tried the door, but it refused to open.

There was a recessed section near the door. When he passed his hand close to it, a light came on. Curious, he stuck his hand underneath. The light was warm, like that of a tanning booth. A panel lit up on the wall, and a countdown of some sort began. Uneasy, because for some reason, countdowns felt like something to be avoided, he hesitated before placing both hands under the light. It felt good in a weird way, and he relaxed into the beam.

After thirty seconds, the light shut off. The door automatically opened.

Ronon was no longer in sight. John wandered back toward his bed, but he was reluctant to get back in it. What he needed were some clothes and some answers. Well, more answers. Answers that made some sense.

An odd sensation passed over him. It felt as though a blanket, warm from the dryer, had been placed around his shoulders. It would be so easy to climb back into bed. Something told him that it would be safe, too. That it was okay to rest this time.

He could rest later.

The drawers in the cabinet beside his bed proved to contain only a change of linen and more white clothing like the outfit he was wearing. Scrubs, his brain suggested helpfully. The next second a terrible thought came to him. What if they were all part of a mental institution?

He had to get out of here.

He shut the cabinet beside his bed with a little more force than necessary for the purposes of making a quiet get away, and the guy in the bed next to him opened his eyes.

Clean-cut features, day-old stubble, intense blue eyes. Just your type, John thought, as he smiled. Two seconds ago, he didn’t know he had a type and now he did.

The man licked his lips and swallowed. “What’s going on?” His voice cracked a little on the first word, but grew stronger as he continued speaking.

“Not entirely sure,” John said. “Woke up here, same as you. Spoke with some people who mentioned a fever—an outbreak of some kind. Seems like some of us have lost our memories as a result. If you can believe them, that is.”

The man pushed himself up slowly and winced at the effort. “You don’t think we can?” he asked when he was upright.

John shrugged, feeling frustrated. “Don’t know. It seems okay on the surface, but there’s something they’re not telling us. Someone’s gone for a doctor though.”

The guy looked around vaguely, his gaze lighting on the plastic urinal briefly. John had to smile. “Facilities are that way.” He pointed at the cubicle. “No sink, some sort of light that irradiates your hands.”

The guy raised an eyebrow and started to toss back his covers, only to realize that he was attached to an IV line. He frowned, and tried to take out the catheter from the back of his hand.

“You think you should do that?” John asked.

“I dunno,” the other guy said. He let himself fall back on his pillow. “Man, I’m wiped out.” He looked at John curiously. “Who are you?”

“I’m Colonel John…” John trailed off as he realized he didn’t know his last name. He checked his scrub pants vaguely, searching for something in his pockets that might identify him, but came up empty. He followed up by patting his chest—and discovered a hard metal outline underneath his scrub top. He pulled out the metal disc suspended from a chain around his neck. “Sheppard,” he said, after squinting at the raised print. He ran a finger over the raised letters. There were other letters and numbers associated with his name, as well as a black rubber ring all the way around the tag. Noise guards.

The guy pulled his thick brows together in a frown, and reached down the collar of his own shirt, pulling out a similar set of tags. “I’m either Lorne Evan or Evan Lorne,” he said slowly.

“Evan Lorne,” John said decisively. “The woman called me John, and Sheppard is listed first on the tag. It has to be last names first.” He wasn’t sure how he knew that, he just knew it felt right.

“Evan,” the man said, as though trying the name on for size. He looked up sharply at John. “I think you’re my commanding officer.”

“Nuh-uh,” John said. “Who’d put me in charge of anything?” He smiled at Evan, a sort of half-effort. Whoa, if he was a subordinate, then he’s definitely off-limits. John wondered where that thought had come from and decided not to question it until he found out otherwise.

“No, no, no!” The cry came from the other side of the room, as the man in the other bed sat bolt upright. John and Evan glanced over at him. Even as they watched, the guy seemed to be in a panic, looking around for something he couldn’t find. John shot Evan a sympathetic glance and crossed over to the other man’s bed.

When John reached his side, he could see that the man had given up looking for whatever it was he’d been searching for, and was now pushing back his covers and looking at his arms. He flipped his hands over rapidly a few times, and began studying his skin with intent. John could see that there were numbers and letters written in a black marker on the guy’s skin.

“Hey, buddy.” John spoke soothingly, the way he would to a spooky horse, and then felt that odd sense of rightness when he did so. “Everything’s okay. You’re in the infirmary.”

“Everything’s not okay,” the man snapped. “I have to find a woman. A woman named… ohmygod. I’ve forgotten her name.” He rattled off his words like bullets as he actively searched the writing on his skin. “Oh no.” His voice was full of despair. “The letters—they’re smudged! I can’t read this! I’m supposed to find this woman. Her name is something or other… Beyla? Sheyla? Oh god.” He broke off to pound a closed fist repeatedly on his forehead.

He too, had blue eyes. Maybe not as electric as Evan’s, but compelling just the same. The turbulent color of the sea on a cloudy day. His hair was also brown, short, and receding from a high forehead. At least two or three day’s worth of stubble lined his jaw as well. Damn, he’s kind of hot. John found himself appreciating the man’s kinetic energy, and his deceptively nice biceps.

“Teyla?” John offered.

The effect was instantaneous.

“You know her?” The man focused his entire attention on John with laser-like intensity. John felt a little twist of pleasure that he got this man to notice him.

He nodded. “She was here a little while ago. She went for the doctor.”

“I need to find her.” The man was getting agitated again, and struggled to untangle himself from his bedding. “If I don’t, people are gonna die.” He made a little noise of frustration when he couldn’t disengage himself from the bed. He thrust the covers back further, kicking at them with his feet, and tried to stand up.

“Hang on, I think the crisis over.” John caught his arm and helped him back to the side of the bed when he would have fallen. “Teyla said something about a fever that made people lose their memories, and then this big guy, Ronon, said they distributed a plant through the ventilation system and everyone is getting better.”

“And you believe them?” The man looked at him with such a glance of obvious incredulity, that John felt stupid for trusting his instincts with Teyla and Ronon. They stood that way for a long moment, the guy with no name just staring at him while John continued to hold on to his arm. The guy finally looked down at John’s hand and reluctantly, he let go.

“So who are you, anyway?” The guy asked, frowning as he looked around his immediate area once more. He didn’t seem to really be paying attention to John, which was kind of disappointing.

“I’m Colonel John Sheppard.” If he said it often enough, it might start to sound right.

Blue eyes locked on target again. “You’re military?” The guy drew back and made as thought he might crawl under the covers again.

“Yeah. So?” John gave him a frown of his own.

“Well, nothing, except that someone told me not to trust the soldiers—that they were taking people away. Therefore, ispo facto, I shouldn’t trust you.”

“I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t trust anyone who would use the phrase ipso facto.” John tried his best grin when the man looked at him sharply. “They were probably trying to prevent people from getting hurt. You know, when they started to lose their memories.”

“So you say,” the man said darkly. “Have you seen my clothes?”

John shook his head.

“Do you know who I am?” the man asked almost hopefully, and John hated saying no, he didn’t.

The man sighed dramatically. He snapped his fingers restlessly, and appeared to notice John for the first time. “You’re not military,” he said.

“Yes, I am.” The conversation felt oddly juvenile and yet familiar at the same time.

“No, you’re not. You can’t be military and have hair like that.”

“What’s wrong with my hair?” John reached up to touch his scalp. Thank god. It felt like he had a full, thick head of hair.

“It goes in all directions.” The man waved his hand in a small circle and twiddled his fingers as though he was casting a spell. “I’m pretty sure that’s non-regulation.”

“Based on what?” John crossed his arms over his chest. “You remembering something I don’t?”

The man narrowed his eyes and studied John’s face seriously. He raised a hand and began to shake his index finger at John. “There’s something about you. You’re the man…you’re the man…the man with the…” John could see him grappling with whatever it was he was trying to remember, as if he could forcibly pull it up to the surface where he could lay hands on it.

“The hair?” John heard the sarcasm in his voice.

The other man frowned. “No, he said slowly, before snapping his fingers. “Got it! You’re the man with the plan.”

“Excuse me?” John asked. His feet were starting to get cold and he wished he could get into bed with the other guy, just for a moment. Just until he warmed up.

The other man shook his head sadly. “Gone. Whatever it was, it’s gone. I just have this weird feeling I should trust you. And at the same time, that I should trust no one.”

“The truth is out there,” John said. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he wondered where they had come from. What the fuck?

“I’d prefer it if it was in here.” The man spoke with tartness, and John smiled. The man smiled back at him, a bit reluctantly at first. His smile was slightly crooked, and just a little bit wicked. It was very attractive.

“So who am I?” The guy was back to looking worried again.

John pulled out his identity discs from the collar of his shirt. “Evan and I are wearing these.” He indicated Evan where he lay in bed across the room. Evan raised his hand in a brief wave and let it fall back to his lap. John noted that he was watching their interaction with interest, yet with no real effort to join in. “Are you wearing one?” John pointed to the guy’s chest.

He felt around his neck and even looked down the front of his shirt. “Nope.” He sounded defeated.

“Well, don’t let it get you down.” John tried to be reassuring. “We’ll figure it out. I bet Teyla knows, and she should be back soon.”

Even as he spoke, Teyla and Ronon entered the infirmary, followed by a pretty, young woman. She was wearing the same sort of jacket that Teyla wore; only she seemed to be wearing the entire uniform. Her honey-blonde hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail. She wore a wireless radio in her right ear. She had a stethoscope around her neck, and carried a data pad. What kind of place was this, that uniforms were optional?

“Good,” she said cheerfully, as the entire group came up beside the man’s bed. “I’m glad to see that you’re all finally awake. You were the last three to recover from the effects of the enchuri plant. I might have known that you two would gravitate toward each other.” She smiled at John and the man in the bed.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The other man’s voice was sharp, agitated.

“Nothing, Rodney. Only that you and Colonel Sheppard work together and are as thick as thieves on your down time too.” She spoke in that all-too-soothing manner that made John slightly suspicious.

“Rodney?” the man repeated. “My name is Rodney? Are you sure? I don’t feel like a Rodney.”

“You would rather we called you Meredith?” The woman in uniform smiled, again the expression stretched tight over her features. She was tired, very tired, and trying not to show it. She was also obviously irritated with Rodney.

John felt a sense of protectiveness come over him, and took a step closer to the bed without thinking about it—until the young woman fixed an assessing glance in his direction. She appeared to note the fact that he’d stepped in between her and Rodney. Her lips thinned, and then curved into a slight smile. A real one this time. Something about his actions amused her and he didn’t know why. It pissed him off.

Teyla and Ronon were smiling too, in an indulgent sort of way. It was really starting to get a bit annoying.

“Meredith?” Rodney frowned. “Well, at least that sounds more distinguished than Rodney.” He laid extra emphasis on the name as he said it, pursuing his lips as though he’d tasted something sour.

“Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay. Surely that is distinguished enough, Rodney.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out some laminated tags on lanyards. She handed one to Rodney, as well as John. “Here. This was actually your idea, Colonel, and a good one. The expedition is small enough that we don’t normally wear photo IDs, but in these circumstances, Colonel Carter deemed it wise to follow your lead and institute them for all personnel until everyone’s memory returns.” She handed IDs to Ronon and Teyla as well. John noted that while Teyla put hers on around her neck, Ronon tucked his tag down in one of his gauntlets. He saw Ronon’s point. There was probably only one of him.

The woman separated one tag from the rest in her hand, and put it on over her head. Underneath a photo of her in uniform, looking impossibly pretty and quite young, John read the words, “Jennifer Keller, M.D.” She handed another tag to Ronon, who glanced at it, and walked over to hand it to Evan.

John looked his tag over. So that’s what I look like, eh? He could see what Rodney meant about his hair. Definitely non-regulation. He wondered how he’d gotten around that. It wasn’t a bad face. Aside from the decidedly bad boy hair, he had hazel eyes, a permanent five o’clock shadow, and full lips that suggested a smirk lingered nearby. Could be worse. There was his name, too, in print. John Sheppard. That seemed okay too. Lt. Colonel. That was the part that felt strange, unexpected. He wondered why.

“This isn’t me.” Rodney presented his ID card back to the woman with a flourish of his wrist.

John glanced at the photo. Ski slope nose, receding hairline, piercing blue eyes, slightly supercilious expression. As if the man in the photo was saying, ‘yeah, I’m all that.’ John thought it a pretty good likeness.

“I don’t know, Rodney,” he said, trying to be helpful. “Looks like you to me.”

“Are you insane? Maybe the fever affected your eyesight as well as your memory.” Rodney shot an evil glare in his direction before refocusing on Dr. Keller. “I have light brown hair. Almost blond. When it’s longer, it curls. And I’m at least twenty years younger than the guy in this photo.”

Keller made the kind of face people make when they are really trying hard not to laugh. Her eyebrows lifted and she folded her lips together tightly until they disappeared.

Teyla intervened. “That is very good, Rodney. You are remembering the way you looked when you were a young man. You are making a good start on recovering all of your memories.”

“A young man?” Rodney looked distressed. “What are you saying? How old am I?” He patted his face with both hands, as though feeling for wrinkles.

Ronon returned to the group. “What’s with him?” He indicated Rodney, who was now feeling his hair and cursing under his breath.

“Rodney has discovered he’s no longer twenty,” Keller said with a flashing grin.

“I don’t see what the problem is,” John said, annoyed with all of them. “He looks great to me.”

Everyone stopped to stare at him. Keller seemed to gape a bit. Teyla just gave him a beaming smile. Ronon actually rolled his eyes. Rodney, on the other hand, looked gratified.

“You think I look great? Well, thank you. That’s very nice, coming from you, Colonel Photogenic.”

Ronon released a guffaw of laughter that startled everyone. “Never mind,” he said when everyone looked at him. He winked at Teyla though.

John decided he liked these people. He didn’t know why, but he did.

“Right.” Dr. Keller cleared her throat. “I’ve let Sam, Colonel Carter, that is, know that you are all awake now. She’s already held a citywide meeting regarding the memory loss of certain personnel and how we are going to deal with it. She’s going to come down here and talk with the three of you once you’ve had time to eat a little something, and we run a few more tests. Oh! That reminds me!” She reached into another pocket and pulled out a little metal bracelet. She handed it to Rodney. “Really, you should wear one of these anyway, Rodney. I’m surprised that you don’t. We can’t always rely on you to tell us every single day what you are allergic to.” She smiled when she spoke, taking some of the sting out of her words.

“I’m allergic?” Rodney accepted the medic alert bracelet and flipped it over. He looked distressed again.

“Oh yes. You have a citrus allergy that is quite severe. And, according to you, a whole host of minor allergies. Such as mold, and any food item you don’t like.” Her teasing was gentler this time.

“Am I allergic to anything?” John asked curiously.

“Paperwork,” Evan volunteered from across the room.

Everyone, except for Rodney and John, laughed. “Is that a returning memory, Major Lorne, or just a lucky guess?” Teyla asked. Her amusement shimmered in her voice, and John was reminded of sunlight on water.

Evan shrugged with a smile. He looked at John. “Told you you outranked me. Sir.”

“Well, this is all good.” Keller couldn’t quite hide the relief in her voice. “Colonel Carter will be pleased. I have to admit, we’ve been very concerned about all of you.”

“All of us?” John asked, raising an eyebrow. Though he directed his question to Keller, it was Teyla who answered.

“Had we not distributed the enchuri plant when we did, many more would have died. We did not expect the memory loss to be persistent, either.” There was an odd, almost lyrical cadence to her manner of speaking that was unlike the others.

Keller leaned in and patted Rodney on the arm in an avuncular fashion. “You’ll be relieved to know that Katie is just fine, Rodney.”

“Katie?” Rodney frowned.

“Your girlfriend.” Keller frowned briefly as well.

“Someone with whom you went out a few times,” Teyla clarified. Keller shot her a puzzled look while John tried not to feel disappointed. He’d been sure there was something between him and Rodney. Don’t be an idiot. Guys like Rodney didn’t stay unattached long.

“She was one of the first people to become ill. You brought her to the infirmary. One of the members of her team died. Had Ronon and John not returned with the enchuri plant when they did, and had you not overridden the security codes so that we could distribute it rapidly through the ventilation system, many more would have died.” Teyla seemed very matter of fact, all things considering. John wondered what it was like to be that calm all the time.

Rodney gaped at her. “So, what, he and I, we’re like heroes?” He sounded incredulous, but the look he shared with John was pleased.

“Yes, yes,” Keller said, her patience starting to wear thin again. “Though, I prefer to think it was more of a team effort here. But if it makes you happy, you two are like Butch and Sundance. Batman and Robin.”

“Pinky and the Brain,” Ronon added.

Keller snorted and tried turning it into a cough.

“What?” Ronon grinned when Teyla punched him in the arm.

“Now I will have that song in my head all day.” For the first time, Teyla showed signs of annoyance.

Keller laughed out loud this time. “Oh dear, it is a bit of an earworm, isn’t it?”

“Who’s Pinky and the Brain?” Rodney asked irritably. John was on his side; it was irritating for everyone to act as though they could follow the conversation. And what the hell was an earworm?

“You got the entire series for Christmas. Watch it.” Ronon suggested.

Rodney looked around his immediate area again and unconsciously fingered his arm. He’s looking for a pen, John thought. Somehow, that was both admirable and endearing. John gave him an approving smile, but Rodney didn’t seem to notice.

“Right,” Keller said briskly, suddenly appearing to remember her position. “I’ve ordered lunch to be sent up, and clean clothes as well. After you’ve gotten dressed and eaten, I’m going to send some people around to ask you some basic questions about what you can remember about yourselves, and your work here in the city. No stress. There are no penalties for not remembering. This is just to establish a baseline to compare to as your memories return.”

“They will return, right?” John asked. He was glad she had mentioned clothes. His feet felt like blocks of ice.

Keller and Teyla exchanged a look before Teyla spoke. “We have every confidence that your memories will return, John. That has always been the case in Kirsan fever.”

“No offense, but when’s my doctor going to get here?” Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, and damn, if that didn’t look hot again. Must be nice, John thought. Even rumpled and recovering from illness, Rodney McKay was irresistible. John wondered what he looked like just now, and if he held up nearly as well under the same circumstances.

“Your doctor?” Keller looked confused. John could also hear the underlying anger in her voice.

“Yes, yes.” Rodney made a rolling motion with his hand. “You know, the guy in charge of our case.”

“That would be me.” In a flash, Keller went from friendly co-ed to pissed professional. “Are you telling me that you don’t think a woman can be in charge of your case?”

“What? No! This has nothing to do with you being a woman.” Rodney looked aghast. “It has to do with you being what, nineteen, twenty at best?”

Keller was suddenly all smiles again. “Actually, I’m almost thirty. Aren’t you sweet, though? Don’t worry; I know what I’m doing. There’s a pretty sharp learning curve around here.”

Rodney narrowed his eyes. “Around here being—where, exactly? Because we’re not on Earth, are we?”

“Are you sure you haven’t been smoking some of that wacky weed they put in the ventilation system, McKay?” John shook his head. Talk about your wild conjectures.

Keller looked nonplussed, however. “What makes you say that, Rodney?”

“I’m right, aren’t I? Hah! I knew it. First of all, the spectrum of light is all wrong in here—”

“It’s artificial lighting, Rodney.” Keller no longer looked impressed.

“Yes, yes, it is. And most hospitals in my experience are lit much brighter than this. What is this place, the Black Hole of Calcutta? Anyway, the wall panels are fluorescent lighting to be sure, but the wavelength is different from most of the typical rare earth phosphors.”

“And you know this how?” Keller asked, skepticism rampant in her voice.

Rodney waved his hand dismissively. “I just do, that’s all. Besides, I remember looking up through a window here—just the other day—and seeing two moons. Two.” He held up two fingers for good measure. “And a city—and enormous city. Something tells me we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“Were we supposed to be in Kansas?” John asked.

Rodney winced and shrugged. John took that as an ‘I don’t know.’ Rodney redirected his attention to Keller. “I certainly hope we’re not going to play that stupid game whereby we don’t tell the amnesia victim anything about themselves in the hopes that their memories come back on their own naturally.” He made finger quotes around the word ‘naturally.’

“Fortunately, Colonel Carter is of the same opinion, Rodney. Why don’t I let her explain things to all of you at the same time? You can ask your questions then.” Keller spoke in the manner of someone who disagreed with the planned course of action, but had been voted down.

“Right, right.” Rodney rubbed his hands together, as though he could hardly wait. “So, we’re not on Earth, we’re part of an expedition in a city with a strong military presence. This is going to be so cool.” The look he shot John was conspiratorial and full of glee.

John smirked back at him. “Well, except for the lack of memory part.”

Rodney nodded but was dismissive too. “A slight inconvenience. I bet your field psychiatrist is having kittens over this one, though.” He spoke to Keller again.

“She’s dead.” Ronon’s contribution to the discussion was unexpected and sobering. For some reason, everyone looked at John.

“Oh look!” Keller said brightly, as an attendant wheeled in a cart with covered plates on it. “Your lunch is here.”

 

****

Colonel Samantha Carter had the kind of authority that was reassuring, despite the fact that she wore it lightly. She was blonde and wore her hair long, yet not pulled back in a regulation bun. Her uniform was the same as Keller’s, and yet not one that John recognized. If what Rodney was suggesting was true, then they were all part of something far different from the military as John remembered it.

Something about that was exciting to John. No, beyond exciting. Exhilarating. Liberating.

She’d created a little presentation for them, and they’d all met in a briefing room to watch it, as opposed to her coming to the infirmary, as Keller had previously suggested. John noted that Ronon and Teyla were present too, as well as Keller. There was a funny-looking, fuzzy- haired man with glasses, a couple of military personnel, and several scientist types that came in at the last minute.

John took a seat at the large table. Rodney and Evan joined him on either side without any discussion. Ronon and Teyla flanked them—the others took their seats on the opposite side of the table. John felt like they were missing someone, and kept waiting for a slim woman with dark hair to join them. The loss he felt when she did not show up was indescribable. How could he miss someone that didn’t even have a name?

Carter’s presentation was simple. It was a bare bones recap of their mission in Pegasus and the roles that each of them played. She had photos and video- tapped footage to back it up. Without that, John would have accepted her story with the same certainty as if he’d been informed that he was a Latin flamenco dancer. Which is to say, not.

Wormhole travel and Space Vampires. What had he been thinking when he’d signed on for this mission?

Rodney was taking notes on a small laptop. His fingers moved with alacrity over the keypad. John watched him out of the corner of his eye. Rodney’s expression bounced between sheer excitement and appalled horror. It was kind of fun to watch, actually.

“So you can see,” Carter said, as she was winding down her presentation. “Each of you play vital roles here in Atlantis. For the time being, I’m downplaying the degree of amnesia you have because, frankly, I don’t want to see any of you re-assigned or placed on extended medical leave. I believe that each of you is crucial to our mission here in Pegasus, and I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes you have to bend the rules. However, if any of you feel as though you are not receiving aggressive enough therapy, I would be more than happy to transfer you back to Earth.”

No! The rejection of this idea was so strong; John had to question whether it came entirely from himself.

“But you feel it’s just a matter of time.” Rodney seemed almost diffident. “Before we regain our memories, that is.”

“I do.” If she was lying, she was doing a damn fine job. “Everyone else has recovered theirs—only the ATA carriers are being affected at this time. I’ve prepared some further modules for you—mission reports, and some facts I think you need to know. Pegasus is a dangerous place, and I don’t want anything to happen to any of you because we forgot to warn you of threats everyone else knows about.”

“In the meantime, what?” John had to ask.

“In the meantime, we cope the best we can. Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can temporarily cover the roles that both you and McKay serve in the city—though not at the same time, and not for very long. You are both superlative at what you do. I want you back as soon as reasonably possible.” She smiled engagingly, but she, too, looked tired. John wondered what she was leaving out. It still felt as though they were being shielded somehow.

“For right now, Radek will take over as chief science officer within the city.”

The fuzzy-haired man waggled his fingers as Carter pointed to him. “It might be helpful, McKay, if you work with him. Regardless of your amnesia, your insights may well prove useful.”

“Perhaps even more so. After all, I’m not currently handicapped with the knowledge of what won’t work in a given situation.” Rodney gave a little shrug. “If Dr. Zelenka can keep me from blowing up the city, that is.” Rodney smiled at his own joke.

Carter beamed at him as though he was a prize pupil at the science fair before her expression turned serious. “Please keep in mind how dangerous things are here in Pegasus. There are things you can activate by virtue of your ATA gene that no one else can. I would greatly appreciate it if you would honor Dr. Zelenka’s recommendations in these matters and not work on your own.”

“Why would I?” Rodney looked puzzled. Zelenka looked both gratified and relieved. Interesting. John was going to have to spend some time with the old mission reports. Something told him that the Reader’s Digest version was skipping quite a bit.

It was startling to realize that he’d been in another galaxy for nearly four years. Not just on an alien world, but in another fucking galaxy. What had possessed him to leave all that he knew to come to Pegasus? Why had he stayed when it was so goddamned dangerous?

He thought he had an inkling of why. They’d been escorted through the city to reach the briefing room. As they’d walked past the command post, they had skirted the balcony that overlooked the Gate Room. John had felt a weird tugging sensation as he’d passed the Gate. It was enormous and beautiful. He’d since learned that it could kill you if you stood in the backwash of its opening.

He didn’t care. The idea of an infinite number of worlds on the other side, just waiting for him to explore, was a heady and exciting notion. That he did so, with Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon, just seemed right and fitting somehow.

Carter was still speaking. John tuned back in to hear her say, “Under the circumstances, I’ve decided to assign each of you someone to help you through the next few days or weeks, until your memory returns. Someone to answer your questions and help keep you out of trouble. I would greatly appreciate it if you did not try to lose them, or act independently without their input.” Her words seemed aimed at John. Even Rodney turned and gave him an assessing stare.

“Major Lorne? Dr. Parrish has volunteered to work with you.” John noted that Carter seemed excessively neutral as she spoke, not looking up from her notes. A tall, thin man—obviously a scientist and not a solider—smiled a bit anxiously at Evan and gave a little wave.

“McKay.” Rodney looked up alertly when Carter said his name. “In the event of an emergency, I will take over as science officer, but for now, Radek is in charge and you will be working with him. However, you will need someone to help you on a personal level as well. Dr. Katie Brown offered to be your liaison in the city, but Dr. Keller and I both feel that as one of the first people stricken with Kirsan fever, she is still recovering herself. Teyla has agreed to serve as your guide within the city.”

“Really?” Rodney’s smile was shyly pleased. John tried not to feel jealous when Teyla smiled back at him. He immediately felt foolish. How could he possibly have expected to be partnered with Rodney? It would have been like the blind leading the blind.

“I’m assigning Ronon to you, John. Try to stay out of trouble, okay?’ Carter’s grin was friendly, but the earlier exhaustion was still present.

“He gives me any trouble, I’ll just shoot him.”

Everyone laughed. John got the feeling that Ronon wasn’t kidding, however.

He hung back when Carter eventually dismissed them, and everyone else began filing out of the room. Ronon would have waited for him too, but John waved him off. “I just want a quick word with Carter.”

Ronon flashed him a searching glance, but relented. “I’ll wait outside for you.”

John nodded and watched him go. He stayed in his seat, toying with a stylus that had lain untouched on the table during the briefing.

“Something on your mind, John?” Carter finally acknowledged that it was just the two of them in the room when Ronon left.

“I’ve been reading some of the mission reports.” He hesitated, uncertain where he wanted to go from there.

Carter nodded, as though she had been expecting this.

“I can see where you guys had no choice but to promote me to CO when… when Colonel Sumner was killed.” John rushed through that part of his speech. “But now? Frankly, I don’t get it, ma’am. We’re in contact with Earth again. There are a lot of other fine—better—officers that you could put in charge here. Why me? And why hang on to me now, when I’ve obviously been compromised?”

Carter looked at him thoughtfully. “John, I have no idea how long I will be here in charge of Atlantis. I suspect that my battle experience will take me away sooner rather than later, should the need arise. However, there is one thing that my experience with the SGC, and with SG-1 in particular, has taught me. And that is that sometimes we have to place our faith in the maverick. The outsider. The person who thinks outside the box. The other thing that I’ve learned through the years is this: sometimes the chemistry between teammates is more important than any one member of the team. It’s a kind of weird synergy that transcends the weaknesses of any individual on the team.” She looked away briefly before turning back toward him.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with such a team in my life—and I can recognize it when I see it again, rare as it is. You have that—you, Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon. No, you are not traditional leadership material. No, Rodney doesn’t play well with others. Yes, Ronon and Teyla are aliens by our standards. But together you are more than your individual parts, and again and again, your team has been the only thing that has stood between our enemies and our home. As long as I am commander here, I will do everything in my power to keep your team intact. Even if that means lying to the SGC until you can perform your duties again.”

John opened and closed his mouth several times. He felt very much like a guppy. Carter grinned suddenly, looking ten years younger. “You saved our asses here with the enchuri plant—you guys save our asses nearly every week. I think I can cover yours for at least a couple of weeks.”

“And if we don’t regain our memories?” John felt compelled to ask, even as the warmth of knowing that Carter had his back was melting him from the inside out.

“If you don’t. I’m betting you can fake it so well that no one else can tell. That’s just how good you guys are.”

It was entirely probable that Carter was bullshitting him. But it felt good, just the same.

****

“Oh, oh, hang on one second, just let me check this one out,” Rodney called, spotting another interesting looking data node set into an alcove along the corridor. He glanced down at the tablet he’d managed to swipe from Radek, quickly locating the port and its various connections with the wider grid of the city’s AI on the blueprint map he had pulled up.

“All right, Rodney,” came Teyla’s reply, her amusement evident in her voice with no suggestion of either impatience or annoyance.

Rodney had been aware of Teyla shooting him odd glances, her expression full of affection, as he’d slowly followed her down the long, oddly-lit Atlantean corridors, unable to stop himself from exploring. Everything about this place – this alien city in another galaxy - was extraordinary. From the twin moons he caught occasional glimpses of through the high arches of stained glass to the low hum of a technology he somehow knew was not human, everything about Atlantis presented a mystery that he found he simply couldn’t ignore. He had to walk slowly, had to peer into every service hatch and computer node they passed, and had to ask about every access point and power relay. For some reason he didn’t yet understand, it was as if the challenge presented by the city was far more important than the one presented by his defective memory.

Oh well, he decided as he spotted yet another node that he wanted to investigate, he’d just been told that he was a scientist – and not just any scientist, but chief science officer – so he figured that a little exploration and experimentation was only to be expected part of his job spec.

“Okay, right, of course,” he muttered to himself as he began to form a clear picture in his head of the intricacies of Atlantis’ network. “This node links into the sensory grid and that one to the defense grid. So, I guess we must be getting near to the center, right?” he asked aloud, casting a quick glance towards Teyla before looking back down to the tablet.

“You are indeed correct, Rodney,” Teyla replied. “This corridor is taking us through the middle of the central tower, where the Stargate, the command centre and many of the main laboratories are located.”

“Ooo, the Stargate,” Rodney breathed, feeling his excitement build until he was practically bouncing with it. “Can we go take a look?” He’d caught a quick glimpse of it as they’d traveled from the infirmary to meet with Colonel Carter, but that was all.

A vibrant smile broke across Teyla’s face at his inquiry, the sight of it causing something warm to spark inside Rodney’s chest. He was sure that it wasn’t desire, beautiful though Teyla was, but there was, nevertheless, definitely a feeling of love there. He didn’t know how he could know such a thing, but, like he had with John, he decided to trust his instincts. Some small, elusive sense of memory told him that he didn’t have too many close relationships like this in his life and, as a result, he wasn’t going to jeopardize it.

“Of course we can,” she replied. “After all, that is what I am supposed to be doing – introducing you to all the aspects of the city. Perhaps we should visit your quarters and the labs after that,” she suggested.

“Sounds great,” he said, nodding in agreement and shooting a bright smile her way. He couldn’t honestly say that the thought of seeing his quarters filled him with much delight, but a trip to see the Stargate and the labs sounded like just the sort of thing he’d like. Perhaps by then Radek would have the time to talk him through some of the more advanced aspects of the city and its technology.

As he and Teyla set off down the corridor again, Rodney wondered vaguely whether he should be more upset about his amnesia. Apart from his brief moment of panicked disorientation upon waking, he’d found himself remarkably okay with his entire situation. Was it odd to wake up with no memories in a floating city in another galaxy and not to be too distressed? However, he quickly dismissed the thought. None of the others seemed all that concerned, even Colonel Carter, who he supposed was his boss. Indeed, once he and the two other men who were suffering with the same memory problems had learned of who they were and, perhaps more importantly, where they worked, any distress any of them previously may have felt soon melted away in the wonder of it all. As Colonel Carter’s presentation had progressed, Rodney had felt himself get more and more excited, instinctively turning to John, who was seated close by his side, who he somehow knew would be just as excited as he was by it all.

Rodney had actually suspected something of the sort before Carter had laid everything out in the open for them and he was a bit surprised that the others hadn’t spotted what, for him at least, had been some fairly obvious hints. That said, even that realization hadn’t fazed him. Really, from the moment he’d spoken with John and Evan and had John reassure him, he’d been pretty much at peace with his situation. He guessed it was all part and parcel of their amnesia – there were things they were just going to have accept, at least until their memories returned, and his own instinctual reactions to people and places would help him navigate through his life on Atlantis until that happened.

Having reached this conclusion, Rodney found it easy to believe Colonel Carter’s assurances that he was a scientist, because it was backed up by his own feelings of connection to the city and his enraptured response to its technology. Likewise, his feelings for John and Teyla – ones of deep trust and friendship – did make it seem eminently plausible that they all served together in a close-knit team. There were other so-called facts about his life about which he was less certain – a girlfriend called Katie, for example. Not only had a picture of her not sparked any sense of emotion or recognition in him, but there was also the fact that sitting close to John during the meeting had been enough to give him the first stirrings of an erection. Both things were reason enough to give Rodney serious doubts as to whether he could really be involved with a woman when a man like John was on Atlantis and was purported to be one of his best friends.

His thoughts were interrupted as they arrived at the transporter that Teyla assured him would take them up to the Gate Room. As they entered, Rodney studied the destination array intently, finding that his mental picture of the city’s infrastructure was coming into even sharper relief with the additional data.

“It’s amazing,” he breathed, glancing across at Teyla.

“It is,” she agreed. “We are very fortunate that the Ancients built such a place and that it has survived for so long. Without Atlantis’ presence in this galaxy, I would fear for the continued survival of my people and the people of many of the planets we have visited over the years.”

“The Wraith, right?” Rodney asked, feeling his body shudder involuntarily as he spoke the name of the life-sucking aliens Carter had shown them. “They look very, well, very terrifying.”

Teyla nodded, her expression serious. “They are,” she said. “They have killed many thousands in my lifetime alone – my father, my friends…” she trailed off, the look in her eyes suggesting that she was remembering unhappy times.

Rodney struggled to find the right words to reply, feeling intensely unsure of how to respond in the face of Teyla’s obvious grief. “I’m… I’m sorry,” he said at last.

To his great relief, it seemed to be the right thing to say as, at his words, Teyla glanced up and smiled again, the expression of pain clearing from her face. “Thank you, Rodney,” she said, reaching out to place a hand on his arm. “And, although you do not remember it now, you and John have played a big part in protecting everything that is dear to me – so, thank you.”

As his embarrassment grew, Rodney was relieved to be spared a response as the transporter doors swept open to reveal the Gate Room and all thoughts simply vanished from his head. As he stepped out of the transporter, it was as if he was moving forward without even realizing it, being drawn to the Gate as if summoned.

It looked magnificent, embedded in the mahogany-colored stone floor and framed by the huge metallic brackets that rose up to the high-vaulted ceiling. He could see the now-familiar pattern of alien stained-glass through the Gate, but it was to the Gate itself that his attention quickly returned, his gaze running over the star patterns of the inner ring and tallying the current encoded pattern with what he’d already learned about Atlantis.

“Ah,” Teyla said from his side, the sound of her voice startling him out of his abstraction. “It looks as if we have arrived at the perfect time.” She nodded towards a group of four uniformed people standing to one side of the Gate. “SGA- 6 is due to head out on a mission.”

Rodney nodded, recalling the part of Carter’s briefing about the SGA teams. Before he could ask her about the team on which they both served – SGA-1, with John and that large dread-locked man – Ronon, wasn’t it? – he heard a loud surge of power and the Gate sprang into life.

Nothing could have prepared Rodney for watching the Stargate in action. He watched in awe as the patterns on the inner ring flashed briefly in a rotating sequence before one was selected under each of the seven chevrons. He was vaguely aware that part of his mind was running through the almost innumerable number of different combinations whilst another part was calculating the energy required to power such a device, although quite where he was coming up with the numbers he was using to do so he wasn’t entirely certain. Most of him, however, was caught up in the wonder of the alien technology and the remarkable creation of the stable wormhole as it splashed into existence.

“Incredible,” he breathed, one hand outstretched as he grappled with the overwhelming urge to reach out and touch as words like Schwarzschild, Einstein and Rosen spiraled through his mind along with an over-whelming sense of awe.

“Yes, it is beautiful, isn’t it?” Teyla agreed and Rodney got the sense that, even through she was seeing the same thing he was, she was appreciating it in a very different way.

As they watched as SGA-6 disappeared through the event horizon, Rodney found himself still marveling at the fact that they were actually traveling, nearly instantaneously, through a stable wormhole to a different planet literally thousands of light years away. He then begged some time from Teyla to look through the computer consoles in the command center, getting the Gate technicians to talk him through the basics of the dial-up programs and Gate functionality. He could tell they found it odd to be explaining something so basic to him, but also found that he could ignore their incredulous looks quite easily, concentrating instead on the information they were imparting. In the back of his mind he wondered at his ability to ignore people’s response to him like he could, filing it away as something to ask Teyla about. Perhaps it was connected to the feelings he had about his lack of close friends?

To his surprise, it didn’t take him long to reach a point in his understanding of the physics underpinning the wormhole technology where his questions were confounding the people on duty. He could feel himself getting frustrated by their inability to answer what were, in his opinion, fairly straight-forward questions. Thankfully, just at the point at which he felt that his temper was going to snap, Teyla calmly stepped forward, suggesting that they move on with their tour.

****

They visited his quarters next and, although Rodney was very much prepared for nothing to spark either his interest or his memory, there were a couple of notable exceptions. The first came when Teyla swiped her hand over the panel by the door and gestured for him to precede her into the room,

“You gave the whole team access quite some time ago,” she explained with a smile. “There have been several incidents where a threat has been inside Atlantis and I believe you wanted to ensure we had access for safety’s sake.” She paused for a moment, seemingly thinking over her next words with care. For a moment Rodney wasn’t sure she was going to continue, but then she did with a strange expression on her face, as if she was watching him closely for some sort of reaction. “I think John has had access to your quarters for the longest,” she confided in a low tone. “And you to his, although you are the only one for whom this is true.”

“Oh, really?” Rodney replied, not entirely sure what to make of that. Teyla seemed to be indicating that there was something special about his relationship with John, but she seemed much more circumspect in expressing it; a stark contrast to how Keller had proclaimed this Katie person to be his girlfriend. “Well, we’re best friends, aren’t we?” he said, wondering whether that fact was enough of an explanation.

“Yes,” Teyla replied, but that was all she would say.

“Hmm,” was all Rodney could reply, his mind filing away that piece of information in the little part of it in which he was collating thoughts, feelings and facts about John Sheppard.

As he entered his room, he experienced a moment of surprise to find that a cat wasn’t winding itself between his legs and mewing affectionately. He had a brief flash of memory – disjointed and half-formed – of a tabby cat. He could recall the softness of its fur as he rubbed its belly and a sense of contentment fading away to be replaced by one of sadness as he handed the cat over to an unknown brunette.

He looked around his quarters with an almost detached sense of interest, absently noting the framed degrees over his desk, the rows of textbooks and journals neatly filling several bookshelves, a myriad of datapads, a couple of laptops and a tablet scattered almost carelessly about the room.

“Hmm,” he said, circling around the room and taking it all in. “I guess I really am a scientist, huh?”

“Did you ever doubt it?” Teyla asked, raising a discerning eyebrow.

Rodney shrugged. “I guess not,” he said. “I mean, I do seem to have a lot going on up here,” he continued, waving a hand towards his head. “It’s a bit confusing, to be honest with you.”

“Oh?” Teyla replied with what seemed to be real interest. “How so?”

Rodney frowned, trying to put into words his racing thoughts. “Well, it’s like I’ve got about a dozen different things all going on in my head at the same time. For example, I’ve got about a hundred different thoughts about the people I’ve met so far – you, John, Ronon, Colonel Carter, Evan, Dr Keller – questions I’ve got about them, things that I believe may be memories, feelings I get when I think about them.”

“But, surely Rodney, this is a good thing,” Teyla said. “It most likely indicates that your memory is already returning.”

“Yes, perhaps,” Rodney replied. “But that’s not all. You see, then there’s Atlantis – you know as we’re walking through, I’m subconsciously calculating power flows and trying to work out ways to conserve energy? I mean, when we passed power unit 15b – and don’t ask me how I know that that is what it’s called, only that I’m right about it - outside the transporter? There was a tiny rise in power levels as the transporter went offline. That means there’s a surge somewhere in one of the power grid’s subroutines that we need to find and insulate. There are over two-hundred other transporters in the sections of the city that are inhabited at present and if there are similar surges in all of them, we could be losing literally thousands of gigajoules of energy every day.

“Then there’s the Stargate. Ever since I saw it in action I haven’t been able to get what I am assuming are the equations behind the creation of a stable wormhole out of my mind. I mean, how did they do it? You see, if we’re talking about the Schwarzcshild metric here, then surely it would be nothing more than a black hole that, theoretically, should collapse before any matter has the time to transverse it. But, demonstrably, that isn’t the case. So does that mean Hawking and Thorne - whoever they are - were right about the Casimir effect? And, putting all of those discussions aside, I’ve got all this stuff in my head about quantum foam and the possibility of creating worm holes at the Planck scale. And, even though I don’t have the foggiest clue of what any of this means, I’m pretty damn certain that if you gave me a piece of paper and a pencil I could write you out a proof for each one of these conjectures.

“And let’s not forget about the Wraith and the Replicators. Not only do I get an all-pervading sense of terror when I say those names, but I also have a whole bunch of disconnected ideas and theories in my head about how to defeat them. There’s a couple of rather scary plans of some mega-weapon that, when I think about it, makes me feel rather sick when I realize it could probably take-out an entire galaxy. Then there are the various plans for chemical and biological weapons along possible ways of infiltrating their AI systems to deliver computer viruses. And, to top it all off, I have several hundred rather gruesome and, in my mind, far too realistic pictures of the many and varied ways we are all going to die.” He finished at a near-shout, almost panting with exertion. He squeezed his eyes closed for a few seconds, trying to push the myriad of unruly thoughts back down to the back of his mind.

Teyla eyes were wide by the time he had recovered enough to open his eyes. “Ah,” she said, blinking. “I can see why you would find this all confusing. I must confess that I had no idea your thoughts were so complex,” she continued, looking almost ashamed as she made the confession. “I do not believe that any of us did.”

Unsure of why she would feel guilty because of this, Rodney shrugged. “It is confusing,” he admitted. “Or rather, not confusing as such, just something that is going to take me a bit of time to get used to.” He grinned at her then. “I guess I do know how to cope with it all. I mean, I must, right? But at the moment, what with the amnesia and all, I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet.”

“I am sure you will, Rodney,” Teyla replied. “And, if not, I would be happy to share some of the meditation techniques of my people with you. You might find them useful.”

Rodney nodded in reply, not fully convinced he was really the type of person who’d be in to meditation, but recognizing that it was kind of Teyla to ask.

“So, does anything seem familiar?” Teyla asked, looking around his quarters as if searching for something that would spark his memory.

Rodney shook his head. “Nothing really,” he replied. “Only things that confirm what I’ve already been told.” He spotted a photo of the cat he’d glimpsed in his memory and looked around for any other photos, but there were none. He thought about asking about his parents, but something deep inside him shied away from even the thought of it, so he kept his silence.

Glancing over at Teyla, he found her looking at him expectantly. He felt disappointed in himself when all he could do was shake his head and suggest, “Perhaps we should move on to the labs.”

They started retracing their steps back from the living quarters toward the central tower where the main science labs were located. Even though the distinctly alien corridors all looked very similar, Rodney was already feeling very much at home. He found he could work out roughly where he was by identifying the different data nodes and, if he let his feet walk where they would, discovered he could probably find his way back without Teyla acting guide.

They were approaching the transporter at the end of the corridor, when the doors swept open and a slim, red-headed woman stepped out. Her eyes lit up as she spotted Rodney and she was soon hurrying down the corridor toward them.

“Oh, Rodney,” she said, coming to a stop and reaching out a hand to touch him gently on the shoulder. “Jennifer told me that you had been released. How are you?”

It took Rodney a few moments to place her as Katie, his supposed girlfriend and, again, his lack of even the slightest flicker of recognition struck him as distinctly odd. “I’m okay,” he replied. “Just, you know, not quite all there in the memory department.”

“Yes, of course, Jennifer mentioned that,” Katie said. “I’m Katie Brown, one of the biologists.”

“I know,” Rodney replied.

“You do?” Katie asked, suddenly appearing quite gleeful. She was pretty, Rodney thought, especially with her eyes alight and a smile on her face. “Oh, Rodney, that’s fantastic!”

“Ah, well, I don’t remember you per se,” Rodney corrected quickly, not wanting her to get the wrong idea. “It’s just that Dr Keller showed me your picture.”

Katie’s smile dimmed slightly at that, but she remained cheerful. “Well, that was nice of her,” she replied. She glanced over at Teyla then, as if only just noticing her presence. “I guess you guys are taking a tour of the city?”

“Yes,” Teyla replied. “We have just visited Rodney’s quarters.”

“Well, that’s great,” Katie said. “Perhaps I can come with you? May be I can help jog your memory, Rodney.”

For a moment Rodney felt trapped. He felt as if he should want to want her to come along, but really didn’t want that at all. He was just about to agree to her suggestion, not knowing how to refuse, when Teyla came to his rescue.

“That will not be necessary, Dr. Brown,” she said, politely but a little coolly. “We are going to the science labs now, so I’m sure Rodney will soon be caught up in his work with Radek.”

“Oh, sure,” Katie replied, glancing over a Rodney with a smile. “And we all know what you’re like when you get caught up in your work, Rodney.”

Not sure what to make of that comment, Rodney let Teyla start to steer him towards the transporter again.

“You should get some rest,” she said to Katie as they passed her. “After all, you have only just recovered yourself.”

“Yes, I will,” Katie said. “I guess I’ll see you later, Rodney.”

“Yes, sure, fine,” Rodney called out in reply as the transporter doors started to slide closed.

He shot Teyla a glance once they were alone again, curious about her reaction to Katie and his own lack of one. “So, she’s my girlfriend?” he asked.

Teyla looked back at him. “She was at one time,” she said. “But I do not believe you are still seeing each other.”

For some reason, that piece of information made Rodney feel nothing but relief. “Okay, good,” he said. “That makes sense.”

“It does?” Teyla asked.

“Yeah,” Rodney replied. “I don’t really have any kind of reaction to her at all, not like I did you to you and John, for example.”

“You had a reaction to John?” Teyla asked, turning towards him a little and tilting her head to one side in curiosity.

“Um, yes,” Rodney said. “When we first woke up in the infirmary, before we knew what was going on. When he spoke to me, I knew I could trust him. I knew I was safe with him.”

Teyla nodded. “You are,” she said seriously.

Rodney paused for a moment, not sure whether to continue or not, but then just deciding to go for it. “Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s as hot as hell, does it?”

Teyla laughed out loud at that in what seemed to Rodney to be shocked amusement. “No, Rodney,” she replied once she’d regained her breath. “It does not.”

Rodney grinned and bounced up on his toes a few times as the transporter ground to a halt and the doors slid open. “So,” he said as they set off again down the corridor to the lab. “As I’m not seeing Katie anymore and, as we’ve just agreed, John is pretty damn fine, is he seeing anyone right now?”

“You know, Rodney,” Teyla replied, her eyes shining. “I do not believe that he is.”

****

The main science lab was everything Rodney could have ever hoped for – a large, open-plan room filled with desks, long testing benches and whiteboards. Quite a few heads looked up as they entered, curious eyes glancing at him before looking back down to their screens, but there wasn’t anyone that Rodney recognized. Teyla led him through the main room to a smaller office space at the back. In contrast to the main lab, it was clearly set up for a maximum of two people

“This is your personal office,” Teyla explained. “You and Radek both use this room from time to time, although I do believe that you both often work out in the main lab as well.”

Rodney nodded, glancing back to the main lab and instinctively liking the communal feel. Turning back he found that he recognized the short man with wild brown hair and glasses, and not only from the briefing they’d had earlier.

“You’re the one who warned me about the soldiers,” he said, a sudden memory flashing sharply into focus.

Radek turned around quickly at the sound of Rodney’s voice. “Ah, yes, yes, that was me,” he said, coming forward to greet them with a wry smile on his face. “Although, I do think we were both a little out of it then, yes?”

“So I’ve heard,” Rodney agreed. “But, thanks, you know, for helping.”

Radek looked momentarily surprised at Rodney’s offer of thanks, but then waved it off. “No, no, it was nothing,” he said. “But, you are here now to look round, yes?”

“I have been showing Rodney around the city and we have so far been to see the Gate Room and Rodney’s quarters,” Teyla said. “But I believe you are far better equipped to show Rodney around the labs, Radek.”

“Of course,” Radek agreed, taking off his glasses and wiping the lenses with the material of his t-shirt before placing them back on his face. “Where would you like to start?”

Rodney had to think about that one for a moment, torn between asking for a tour and his impulse to just skip the basics and get straight into the science. In the end, his impulse won out. “Perhaps we could take a look at some recent projects?”

Radek’s eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Excellent,” he said, retracing his steps back to his desk and waving at Rodney to join him. “I was actually just reviewing some of the latest results.”

As Rodney made his way eagerly over to Radek’s side, Teyla tactfully cleared her throat, the sound drawing Rodney’s attention back to her. “I will leave you to it, then,” she said with a smile.

“Okay,” Rodney agreed. “Oh, and thank you for the tour and the… conversation.”

Teyla’s smile grew. “It is no problem, Rodney,” she replied. “I actually found our conversation most enlightening.”

Rodney grinned. “Good,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll catch up with you later at dinner.”

“Yes,” Teyla replied. “I will see you then.”

As Teyla took her leave, Rodney turned eagerly back to Radek. “Okay,” he said with excitement. “Where do we start?”

****

Rodney wasn’t sure how long he and Radek spent going through Atlantis’ program of research, but when he next raised his head from the computer terminal they were sharing, he noticed that the large lab outside was almost deserted.

“Huh, I guess we got a bit carried away,” he said, nodding towards the lab.

Radek looked up in surprise, as if he too was only just noticing how much time had passed. He reached up to run a hand through his messy hair and then shrugged. “It happens,” he said, grinning over at Rodney. “Especially once you get started on something.”

“Well, it was interesting,” Rodney said, pointing a finger at Radek. “You thought so too or you wouldn’t have been so engrossed.” It wasn’t surprising that, half-way through their review, they’d become side-tracked in a discussion of Atlantis’ sensory network. One thing had led to another and before either of them had realized it, the discussion had turned from the theoretical to the practical. Now, several hours later, they had sketched out the beginnings of what Rodney was sure would be a serious upgrade in both their sensory capabilities and in their primary defense grid.

“Yes, yes, it was interesting,” Radek agreed, reaching out a hand to gather together the pages of scribbled equations he and Rodney had been working through. “Things with you usually are.” He paused then, weighing something up mentally. “Often infuriating as well,” he continued. “But this time, not so much.”

“Hey,” Rodney protested. “You mean I’m usually infuriating?”

Radek merely shrugged again. “You are a genius, yes? You often remind us of this, but do not always make allowances for those of us who are not.”

Rodney frowned at that. “I don’t? Why not?”

“Truthfully, I do not know for sure,” Radek replied. “But I suspect it has much to do with what happened when you first got your position with the SGC – you had to fight very hard to keep it. You made a mistake at first, I believe. A big one, I think, but also an understandable one. I do not think it was… how you say?... managed all that well.”

“Oh,” Rodney said as a flash of memory assaulted him – something involving arguing with Colonel Carter as the figure of a huge black man with a gold tattoo on his forehead suddenly appeared out of a newly formed wormhole. “Huh, I think I remember something – something about my theory being right on paper, but not in practice.”

Radek snorted at that. “It happens rather a lot out here,” he said.

This time the memory was stronger – a flash of John’s excited face followed by a vision of himself ignoring Radek’s warnings and then a feeling of things spinning violently out of control as some sort of energy levels hit critical and kept on climbing. “God,” he said to himself, shocked and more than a little scared at the memory’s implications. “Did I really do that?”

“What?” Radek asked.

Rodney shook his head to clear it, the imprints of complex energy calculations still burned into his brain. “Nothing,” he said. “Just something—a memory, I think. A base, of some sort, exploding.”

“Ah, yes,” Radek said. “It was like that – the numbers adding up, but not in reality.” He shrugged. “We theorize, we calculate, we experiment and we learn. It is just how it is.”

“And did I?” Rodney asked. “Learn, that is?”

Radek looked at him calmly for a moment and Rodney found himself waiting for Radek’s response with bated breath. “Yes,” Radek said at last, nodding sharply. “You are more careful, most of the time. You involve more of us now in the final stages of your projects, it is good for all of us and for morale. You see, most of us are here to work in Pegasus, but we are also here to work with you, Rodney.”

The confession was unexpected and hit Rodney hard. “Really?” he said. “I… I don’t think I knew that,” he admitted. “I think… Well, I get the feeling I’ve always felt quite isolated.”

“Perhaps,” Radek said. “But you are not – not really. We all want to work with you. Rodney, you may not realize this at the moment, but this? This work we have been doing just now on the AI sensory network?” He let out a long breath as he shook his head before continuing. “It is amazing given your memory loss.”

Rodney shrugged, unsure of how to take the praise for something that came so naturally to him. Maybe that’s what Radek meant about how he’d had to fight for his place on Atlantis. Something in his past had perhaps made him feel the need to push his genius on to people – to make them recognize him and his talents. He shook his head, unable to pinpoint any specific memories this time, only an overwhelming need to be recognized and valued – to belong.

Shaking his head to clear it, he replied to Radek. “Well, I do remember some things. The physics and math, for example, seems to be coming back quicker than anything else. In fact,” he continued, gesturing towards the pages of scribbled notes. “I think I was thinking along these lines before the infection happened.”

Radek nodded. “It would appear so, given the detail here. We should put it on the official program of work, yes? Get you some support, perhaps Danvers and Cheung – they are both programmers.”

Rodney nodded, thinking that it would be good to have something at least partially familiar to work on while he waited for his memory to return.

“Excellent,” Radek said. “I will contact them tonight and maybe you can get started tomorrow? As you may have heard, the situation with the Wraith and the Replicators is escalating, it would be good to have a better sensory program in place, especially given the advanced nature of Replicator technology.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” Rodney said, snapping a finger and then pointing it at Radek in excitement. “Before, I mean,” he clarified. “I was thinking that we needed to be prepared for a different type of attack now the Replicators are on the scene – not just the typical Wraith frontal assault.”

“Ah, so your memories are slowly returning.” Radek said with some satisfaction. “That is good.”

“It is indeed,” Rodney replied with a grin.

“Especially because it will then mean I can hand all this admin back over to you,” Radek finished, shooting a frustrated glance at his screen. “You know I now have twenty-five emails to go through, all from the SGC wanting this report or that?”

“Ignore them,” Rodney replied immediately. “Especially if they’re just a first request. If they really want the info, they’ll ask again.”

Radek nodded seriously. “That is good advice,” he said before grinning at Rodney, his face alight with mischief. “And if anyone complains, I will send them straight to you.”

****

Leaving Radek to the drudgery of his paperwork, Rodney headed out of the lab planning to find the commissary. He’d loaded up a copy of their work onto his tablet, along with the entire department’s program of research and its personnel files, hoping that by skimming through it at his leisure, something would click. He was pretty sure he could find his way through the city by now, nothing as clear as a specific memory of it coming to the fore, but rather just an overall sense of familiarity that he was sure he could trust. As he was finding, relying on those instincts and gut reactions seemed to be the way to go until his memory returned in full. He wondered how John and Evan were finding things, whether their memories were returning in the same vague and haphazard way as his was.

The thought of John reignited another memory, a specific one this time. He was passing by one of the smaller labs, and the sight of it as he gazed in, combined with the thought of John, fired up a memory from somewhere deep within him. He remembered a small, palm-sized device and the deep-seated thrill of excitement it gave him. He remembered activating the device and marveling both at what it could do and how now it would respond to him. He remembered running to find John, eager to share his excitement and knowing that, out of everyone on the expedition, John was the one who would most fully understand.

It was like a cascade then, a flood of warm-colored memories spilling into his mind, all centered around John. There was nothing all that specific, rather just a mass of images and impressions: John grinning at him as they tested some piece of Ancient tech; John looking at him intently as he worked frantically on something in the field, the faith he had in him clear in his gaze; John smiling at him in glee as they played some kind of computer game. Overlaying it all was a deep-seated and warm emotion that Rodney couldn’t help but believe was something an awful lot like love.

As these various memories of John coalesced in his head, Rodney found himself wondering about their relationship. Despite Keller’s assertions about his relationship with Katie, his instincts were screaming at him that there wasn’t anything between them, at least not anymore. His feelings for John, however, were very different indeed. Although the memories he had recovered were still fragmented, missing both context and clarity, the overwhelming impression he got from them matched his initial reaction to John – they were friends at the very least and Rodney trusted John with his life.

As Rodney turned the final corridor he found, to his surprise, not the commissary in front of him, but two large doors of what looked like some kind of hangar. The doors slid open as he approached, revealing a huge, two-floor room illuminated by vast strips of blue lighting near the ceiling and between the floors. The center of the room was clear, the deep lines cut into the floor indicating that a portion of it could sink down allowing access to a lower floor. Glancing briefly upwards, Rodney could see that this panel was mirrored by a slightly smaller one in the ceiling above him, presumably allowing access to the outside. However, it was what was in the room itself which captured Rodney’s attention. The room was divided into individual bays and each one contained a small ship – jumpers his mind supplied.

He had his hand up and was tapping his radio before he knew what he was doing. “John,” he said when the connection was made. “I’ve just found something that you have got to see.”

****

It took John slightly longer to find him than Rodney had expected, especially as he had said he was coming from the commissary, which Rodney was pretty sure was only a few floors away. As he waited, Rodney found himself drawn to one particular jumper, his hands reaching automatically for the diagnostic panel set into the wall of its bay. Blinking a couple of times as he tried to figure out what he was looking at, Rodney found himself convinced that this jumper was John’s. Letting himself relax, he found his body operating on auto-pilot, his hands flying over the panel of their own volition, checking and double-checking the jumper’s essential systems. Rodney found himself grinning as he worked, his actions almost completely unconscious and flowing smoothly from what must be the result of countless repetitions. This was obviously something he did regularly for John – another indication of how things obviously stood between them.

When John finally appeared some thirty minutes later, muttering something under his breath about Ronon and his warped sense of humor, Rodney had completed his review of the jumper and was going over some of the flight logs, torn between marveling and being horrified at what seemed to be some pretty daring piloting on John’s part.

“Wow,” John said as Rodney turned away from the panel to grin over at him. “This place looks awesome!

Rodney nodded, a warm feeling blooming inside him as he took in the obvious joy the jumpers were having on John. “I thought you’d like it,” he said.

John’s gaze snapped to his as he said that. “You remembered something?”

“Nothing really specific,” Rodney replied. “Some disjointed scenes, a few flashes of things that have happened, but mostly I get these… well, almost instinctive feelings about things.” He waved a hand about to encompass the room. “When I found this place, I just knew you’d like it.”

Now it was John’s turn to grin, one hand digging into a pocked of his BDUs to pull out a small object. “Yeah, I think I know what you mean,” he said, crossing over to Rodney’s side and handing over the item he was holding. “I was in the commissary and found myself picking this up for you automatically.”

Looking down, Rodney found himself holding a chocolate-flavor PowerBar. “Oh, perfect,” he breathed, unaware until that moment of just how hungry he was. He unwrapped it eagerly and took a large bite. “Thanks,” he mumbled through his mouthful.

John grinned. “No problem, buddy. Can’t have you passing out now, can we?”

John’s words brought up vague stirrings of yet another memory, but it vanished before Rodney could latch on to it. Shaking away the sensation, he beckoned to John instead. “Come look at this,” he said, munching down another bite of PowerBar. “I think this one’s yours.”

John’s eyes lit up at his words. “Really?” he said, reaching out a hand to place it on the jumper’s side. “What makes you say… Oh!” Before he could even finish speaking, the jumper lit up with a hum, its nacelles opening outwards as if preparing for flight.

Rodney jumped backwards a little in shock, unprepared for the jumper’s reaction to John’s touch, but quickly rallied as he consulted the jumper’s panel. “That does,” he replied dryly, noting the exceedingly goofy grin John had on his face as he looked at the jumper. “Guess this is what Carter meant when she said you’ve got one of the strongest expressions of the ATA gene.”

“What can I say,” John quipped. “I’ve got the touch.”

Recalling the flight paths he’d just reviewed, Rodney couldn’t help muttering under his breath, “Oh, you’re touched, all right.”

“Hey,” John complained, moving over to stand next to Rodney, placing himself so that they were both facing the jumper, close enough that their shoulders were touching. “Just for that, you’re gonna have to come on a test flight with me.”

“A test flight,” Rodney squawked. “Are you mad? You want to go flying in a ship you have no memory of ever having flown before in the middle of an alien galaxy containing at least two superior races both set on destroying us?”

John just grinned. “Yeah.”

Feeling as if he was arguing against the inevitable, Rodney just shook his head. “I’m not sure Colonel Carter would approve,” he muttered as John lowered the jumper’s ramp.

“Come on, Rodney,” John pleaded, pouting in a way that Rodney couldn’t help but find endearing. “We’ll just take her on a quick flight around the city – in and out, I promise. And, you never know, it might help get my memory back.”

“All right, all right,” Rodney conceded, allowing John to pull him bodily into the jumper. “But at least tell me you have some memory of how to fly it.”

“Of course, I do,” John said, but his tone was doing very little to actually reassure. “It’s in my blood… Or so I’ve been told.”

“Great,” Rodney groused as John walked him to the co-pilot seat and pushed him gently into it. “You know, I’m not sure why I’m letting you do this.” However, the sight of John, his eyes glowing with excitement as he took his own seat in the pilot’s chair, answered his question. The warm little bubble of emotion he felt added yet more weight to his growing belief that he and John were more than just friends.

The flight panel in front of John lit up in welcome as he reached out for it and Rodney could feel the little whoosh as the jumper took to the air just before the internal dampeners kicked in. Through the view screen, he could see the ceiling panel he’d noticed earlier start to slide open, the night sky clearly visible through it. John smoothly succeeded in piloting the jumper out of its bay and up, through the roof, and out into the night beyond.

True to his word, John kept the momentum slow and the jumper low, looping lazily through the tallest spires before climbing just high enough to give them a clear view over the whole city. He hovered the ship, giving them both a few moments to survey the view below. In the glow of the twin moons, Atlantis looked like some kind of fairytale castle. The high towers soared in the moonlight and the gold, glowing lights emanating from the city itself set the ocean sparkling, all the elements coming together to make the scene seem almost beautifully unreal.

“It’s breathtaking,” Rodney said, his tone low. “Like something out of a dream.”

“Or a memory,” John replied, his tone equally awed.

Rodney smiled at John’s words. “Like a memory,” he agreed, turning to look at John. “And do you remember?”

John sighed and shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “It’s like you said – more like impressions of things rather than actual memories.” He paused then to glance over at Rodney, a small smile quirking his mouth. “I do remember how to fly.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Yes, and thank goodness for that,” he said. “Seriously though, skills like that – your flying, my math – do seem to have come back first, just without any contextual memory coming along with them.” He paused, wondering whether to bring it up or not, before continuing, following his previous behavior of following his impulses. “And people?” he asked. “Do you remember anyone?”

John’s eyes narrowed slightly at the question. “Not specifically,” he replied slowly. “Just…” he trailed off.

“… impressions,” Rodney finished for him.

“Yeah,” John agreed. “Of Teyla and Ronon.” He paused for a beat. “Of you.”

Rodney nodded. “Me too,” he said. “Of them. Of you.”

“Well, we’re a team,” John said. “A damn good one, according to Carter. I guess it’s not that surprising.”

“No,” Rodney agreed, rotating his chair to face John fully. “And you and I, we’re-”

“Friends,” John interrupted quickly, looking a bit startled even as he did so. “We’re friends, I think.”

“Yes,” Rodney agreed. “But… I mean, I think my impressions are telling me that we’re…” He let his voice trail off, suddenly unsure of himself.

“That we’re what?” John asked, turning in his seat so that he was facing Rodney fully, his gaze intent.

Rodney licked his lips, very aware of how John’s eyes followed the movement of his tongue. “That we’re something more,” he finished quickly; barely able to get the words out before their mouths met and they were kissing.

Rodney wasn’t sure which one of them had initiated the kiss, but as they moved together, the kiss deepening, any thoughts of how and why flew from his mind. He noted vaguely that the kiss didn’t feel as familiar as he thought maybe it should, but it was hot and wet and felt so damn good that soon all he could do was think about ways of prolonging it. John’s mouth moved on his with ease, their lips parting in tandem and then Rodney felt the first, hot push of John’s tongue into his mouth. He groaned low in his throat and tried to move closer, their knees bumping awkwardly together in the narrow space between their chairs. John moved then, parting his legs just enough for one of Rodney’s thighs to slip comfortably between them and then pulling Rodney even closer to him with arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders. Rodney reached up to tangle one hand in John’s unruly hair, thrilling internally as he heard John’s low moan of response.

“Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay,” Carter’s voice came suddenly through their radios, the sound of it forcing them to jump apart in shock. “Please return to Atlantis immediately – you have not been authorized to take out a jumper.”

****

As though in response to Carter’s reprimand, John seemed to lose control of the jumper. Realizing belatedly that he should have been flying it instead of allowing himself to be distracted by kissing Rodney, he snatched at the controls, attempting to pull the nose of the jumper up.

The jumper was having none of it and continued her plummet toward the dark surface of the ocean.

Rodney had retaken his seat when Carter had demanded their return to the city. He’d said nothing at first, for which John was grateful, as he needed all of his concentration to regain control of the craft. When it became apparent, however, that he had not done so, Rodney spoke up.

“Pull up! Pull up!” he demanded, as though that wasn’t the very thing John was trying to do.

“I’m trying.” It seemed to John that he should have added something else there, and his brain supplied the word ‘McKay’, even as he pulled back on the yoke and ordered the jumper to listen to him.

“Well, try harder! We’re headed straight for the water!” Rodney looked a bit panicky, leaning back in his seat, bracing for impact. It occurred to John that the jumper had no seatbelts and that seemed like a stupid omission.

Concentrate, his brain warned him, as the choppy water rushed up to meet them.

“I knew this was a bad idea, even though I read some of the flight logs and I knew you were a damned good pilot. Still, there’s being a natural pilot and there’s such a thing as training, and obviously we should have stayed in the city and now we’re going to die a senseless death when we hit the water…”

John didn’t think Rodney had even taken a breath. Still fighting with the controls, John spoke with a confidence he did not feel. “It’s a spaceship. If we go in the water, we should still be fine.” The ship was ignoring him. John could feel the willful resistance beneath his hands. He wondered what he’d done to piss it off.

John could almost hear the wheels turn in Rodney’s head as he processed what John had said. “Spaceship or not, the angle of insertion into the water is everything—and ours is too steep. We’ll break apart on impact.”

John laughed.

Rodney turned an incredulous look on him. “We’re diving straight for the ocean and you think this is funny?

John shook his head slightly, not taking his eyes off the control panel, where the readouts indicated the rate of speed and angle of descent. Rodney was right; the angle of insertion was too steep. “Not this,” John indicated the jumper with a tilt of his head. “Us.”

As if response to his laughter, the jumper suddenly stopped fighting him. He was able to pull the nose up just as they reached the surface of the water. They skimmed the surface, close enough to touch the waves, before the jumper pulled up in a smooth arc back into the night sky.

“Oh, thank god,” Rodney breathed, wiping his brow with the back of one hand. “Okay, for the record, that wasn’t funny.”

John couldn’t decide if it was better to let Rodney think he was being a jerk or that he really didn’t have control of the jumper there for a while. Before he could respond, there was a voice on the radio again.

“Colonel Carter would like to see the two of you in her office when you land, Colonel Sheppard.”

“Acknowledged,” John began automatically, but blanked on the technician’s name.

The guy on the other end of the radio seemed to hear the hesitation in John’s voice. “They call me Chuck,” he added helpfully.

“Thanks, Chuck. We’re in big trouble, aren’t we?” John shot a conspiratorial glance over at Rodney, who grinned crookedly back at him.

“Well…” Chuck lowered his voice. “Yes and no. Colonel Carter is not pleased. However she did say that she sympathized deeply with several of her previous commanders and that—” Chuck broke off to cough. “Well, she stated loudly that she was not your mother. Sir.”

John winced, even as Rodney hooted.

“Then too, there was the matter of you leaving without clearance, ducking your personal guides when she’d specifically ordered you not to do anything like that, and the use of Ancient equipment when you’d been ordered not to do that either.” Chuck cleared his throat.

“Um, sorry about the clearance thing,” John said as they made their final approach back to the city. The doors to the jumper bay opened as they lined up with them, and John felt some sort of automatic piloting system take over the guidance of the jumper back into the bay.

“Just try not to fly the city somewhere without asking first, Colonel.” Chuck sounded amused.

“The city flies?” John couldn’t help it; he turned to Rodney to share his reaction.

“Haven’t you been reading any of the mission reports?” Rodney was slightly smug, even as Chuck broke in hastily.

“You didn’t hear that from me!’ Chuck exclaimed.

John had a sudden vision of people running around the city, chaining it down so he couldn’t take it somewhere on a joy ride. No sooner did the thought enter his mind, then things shifted suddenly, and he saw himself in a darkened control room with Rodney and Teyla. Rodney’s face was lacerated with tiny cuts in half a dozen places. Flying glass. John’s brain filled in the gaps.

An alarm sounded, and the three of them joined Chuck at a wall screen.

Rodney frowned. “What’s happening?”

Chuck looked unhappy. “The city’s outer buildings are decompressing -- shutting down the artificial gravity.”

“Why would the city do such a thing?” Teyla’s brow furrowed with concern.

Rodney shook his head. “It’s gonna collapse the shield. It’s trying to save power.”

Something constricted around John’s chest. “We’ve got guys out there.” He activated his headset with a touch. “Matthews -- fall back to the tower immediately.”

Over the radio, he heard Matthews speak. “I don’t think we’re done, sir.”

John’s mouth tightened as he barked out his order. “The city’s shield’s collapsing. Move!”

Over the headset, they could hear Matthews speak to the scientists. “You heard the man. Go! Go!”

The four of them watched the progress of the life signs markers as they moved down the corridor for safety.

“They’re not going to make it.” Teyla’s voice was quiet.

John was sharp when he spoke to Rodney. “Stop it. Stop it from doing this.”

Rodney seemed matter of fact as he pointed to the screen, but John could hear the stress in his voice. “The city doesn’t think it can maintain the shield unless we make it smaller. If we delay its collapse, it could fail completely.”

“I don’t care,” John snapped. “Override it!”

Rodney’s fingers flew over the keypad. “It’s not letting me.”

Over the headset, they could hear Matthews tell the scientists that they were almost there. On screen, the four of them could see the edge of the shield racing toward the three life signs as they moved toward the inner corridor.

“We’re gonna lose those guys, McKay!” John watched with anguish as the blue line indicating the shield was catching up with the life signs.

Rodney was both angry and frantic when he replied. “D’you think I don’t realize that?”

Over the radio, Matthews shouted, “The gravity just shut down!”

Chuck, Rodney, John, and Teyla stared at the screen in horror as the shield passed the life signs in the corridor. In rapid succession, the three life signs signatures on the screen went out. A moment later, the message “BIO SIGNATURES TERMINATED” appeared. John felt sick inside. Those where his people. People he’d been charged to protect.

“Hey.” Rodney’s voice in the here and now snapped John out of relieving a memory that had been all too vivid. He snapped his fingers in John’s face. “Wakey, wakey. Are you all right?”

John blinked and shook himself slightly, like a dog coming in out of the rain. “Um, yeah. Just had a memory flash, that’s all.” The immediacy of it had been disturbing—as though it were actually happening to him all over again. What if he’d been flying the jumper when he’d had this flashback?

“Huh.” Rodney sounded thoughtful. The jumper had landed while John had zoned out, and it struck him that it was a good thing the autopilot had taken over. “I haven’t gotten any real memories per se, mostly impressions that seem to bear out when put to the test, or having a better grasp of knowledge of how things work around here than the people who still have their memories intact. I think I’m some sort of genius.”

“What makes you say that?” John asked curiously. He and Rodney made their way toward the rear of the jumper. Rodney reached out and hit the control button that lowered the hatch.

“Well, people keep telling me I am, for starters.” Rodney’s grin was infectious. “It’s more than that, though. I’ll ask some for information, and they seem surprised. Like I’m not the kind of guy who needs explanations. Then they get irritated when they can’t fully answer my questions, or when I leap ahead and answer them myself. I don’t think I have very many friends.” His voice dropped and his shoulders hunched slightly. If he had pockets, he probably would have shoved his hands into them.

John nudged him with his shoulder as they walked. “How can you say that? You don’t know that. You probably have lots of friends. I’m your friend.”

Rodney cast him a bright, flashing glance before watching his feet as they exited the jumper. The hatch lifted and shut behind them.

“That’s probably a bit of a coup, actually, you being my friend, that is.” Rodney nodded as he spoke, as though confirming something he believed to be true.

John stopped him with a grip on his arm. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh come on, seriously? Haven’t you looked in the mirror? You are so one of the cool kids.”

John couldn’t explain why, but he was getting angry. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Rodney laughed. “You probably don’t remember it because you’ve never experienced it, but let me tell you, being the smart geeky kid in school is like wearing a giant bull’s eye on your back along with a sign that says, ‘kick me’. You probably hung out with all the other jocks.”

In a moment of severe disorientation, John saw himself at around thirteen years of age, dressed in a regulation gym outfit from some prep school. He was under the bleachers, surrounded by a group of boys both older and bigger than he was. He hadn’t bothered to put up his fists; he stood with them clenched at his sides.

“Let’s show Sheppard what we do to faggots at Georgetown, shall we?” The tallest boy sneered at him.

The punches began to fly.

“Hey,” Rodney said again. “Are you sure you’re okay? Because, ow, that hurts.”

John released Rodney’s arm and watched as he rubbed it. “Sorry,” John said.

“No problem. Another random memory jumping into your head?” Rodney looked sympathetic. He indicated the exit from the jumper bay.

“Yeah, it’s really distracting.” John grimaced as they entered the corridor. They turned right without question and began walking.

“I’d take it as a good sign. Teyla told me that normally people with Kirsan fever don’t lose their memories, so we’re sailing in unknown waters here. It seems to me that whole memories popping up, well, that’s got to be good, right?”

“I guess.”

They continued walking in silence, that is, until Rodney spoke again.

The words nature abhors a vacuum came to John’s mind when Rodney began speaking.

“Have you ever thought about how much of who we are stems from our fundamental personalities, and how much comes from life experiences? Think about it—this is like the ultimate test of environment versus upbringing.” He smiled engagingly at John.

“What are you talking about?”

“This. This!” Rodney waved his hands to encompass the two of them and the surrounding city. “Just think—here we are in another galaxy. Nothing from our previous knowledge base really applies here—and we don’t remember much of who we are anyway. This is the perfect time to see how much of who we are and how we respond to things is inherent to our natures or if it is a learned response to life experiences. That’s kind of cool, you know?”

John raised an eyebrow at him. “You aren’t particularly bothered by your memory loss, are you?”

“Well, no, oddly enough. I mean, when I first woke up in the infirmary, I was all freaked because I could only remember that we were all in trouble and that I had to find Teyla or we’d all die. Once I realized that everyone was okay, and that there were others of us with the same problem, it just didn’t seem that big a deal. Not compared to having the whole city to explore!” Rodney indicated the city again with a little flourish of one hand, his grin inviting John to see what fun they were having.

“Whoa! Wait, where are you taking me? Isn’t Colonel Carter waiting for us?”

“We can tell her we got lost,” John said, dragging Rodney into a small, empty room off the main corridor.

****

The dressing down they’d received from Carter hadn’t been pleasant, but it wasn’t all that bad either. John could tell she was inclined to be tolerant with them both, but she had gotten across to them that Pegasus was a dangerous place and even Atlantis, after four years of occupation, still managed to surprise them with booby-traps from time to time.

“Not to mention, we’ve only recently relocated the city to this world, and we haven’t yet discovered all its hazards. The recent infection of Kirsan fever came over from botanists exploring the mainland, and I don’t suppose you remember that the mainland has an indigenous species of giant, poisonous snakes, do you?” Carter had been patient, but John could tell this was the last time she was going to say anything like this. He wondered why she’d cut them so much slack as it was, and then realized it was because normally she could trust them to do what she said.

“When you say giant, how big are we talking here? Because if they are big and poisonous, well, the implications here are that there is something even bigger and badder that these snakes must either eat or defend themselves from. Otherwise, why be ‘giant’ and poisonous? That doesn’t make any sense. See, this is why biology frustrates me. No clear rules.” Rodney had made finger quotes for the word giant and looked slightly miffed over the whole thing. His hair was ruffled from their recent make out session, and his shirt was untucked. He looked as though he might have a little beard burn on his neck too. Ooops.

“Well, here’s a clear rule for you, McKay,” Carter had said dryly. “You too, Colonel Sheppard. You’re grounded until further notice. Neither one of you are to leave the city unless it is with authorization and one of your guides present. By the way, where are Teyla and Ronon?”

They’d gotten out of her office without too much skin torn off their hides. Rodney decided he was hungry, and John had to agree—food sounded like a good idea. He let Rodney take him by the hand and drag him in the direction of the mess hall.

Rodney’s hand felt warm in his, and John couldn’t help but remember how it had felt against the small of his back, up under his shirt, as he and Rodney had re-acquainted each other with their bodies. It was weird, this memory loss thing, because there had been an excitement and urgency to their exploration that almost felt like the first time. John could make a case for the memory loss making it feel as though it were the first time between them—but he couldn’t shake the sense of ‘finally’ as he pressed his body up against Rodney’s in the storeroom, and the two of them had begun to grind together.

The memory of it now made John’s cock lift in response. It had been Rodney who’d pulled the plug on their dry humping against the wall.

“Come on,” he’d said, pulling his mouth away from John’s, laughing a bit breathlessly when John chased after his lips and tried to recapture them again. “We can’t keep Carter waiting—it will just make things worse. Besides, I’ve been thinking about this all day. Thinking about what I’d like to do to you. What you’d look like naked. What you’d look like with my mouth around your dick.”

John had leaned his forehead against Rodney’s and pushed up against him some more. “Seriously? You can’t say things like that and just expect me to walk away.”

The way Rodney’s fingers had dug into his ass told John that he wasn’t the only one being affected by Rodney’s words. He was just starting to get a good rhythm going, finding that spot of friction against Rodney that was just right, when Rodney pushed him away.

“Yes, I can.” Rodney’s smile was both rueful and devilish, and John wondered how he could contain so many different expressions in the same speaking glance. “Good things come to those who wait—and if they wait long enough, they come again and again.”

The ensuing lecture by Carter had cooled John’s immediate ardor, but it was smoldering under the surface. A single breath from Rodney could fan it into full flames again.

But maybe dinner first.

The dining hall was empty of most people by the time they’d arrived. John’s stomach growled. He wished now he’d eaten a PowerBar himself. The room smelled like most cafeterias—of meatloaf, bread, and some sort of boiled vegetables. He and Rodney paused at the entrance of the room, still holding hands.

“Where do you want to sit?” Rodney looked around the large room. “Oh, look, there’s Evan and whatisname. You want to join them and see how he’s getting along?”

“Sounds good.” John let go of Rodney’s hand to pick up a tray. Rodney handed him a roll of silverware wrapped in a paper napkin, and joined him in line, tray in hand. “You don’t remember the name of Evan’s babysitter? I thought you were doing good in the memory department.”

Rodney grimaced. “I don’t think I’m good with names in general. I think I have an unfortunate tendency to make up names for people too, instead of calling them by their real ones. It’s kind of demeaning, actually, as though I can’t be bothered to remember who they are, but I don’t think that’s why I do it. It’s just that my brain has already moved on to other things.”

John thought about how Rodney had referred to him as ‘Colonel Photogenic’ and said nothing. Rodney slowly pushed his tray down the row of choices.

“Well?” The server behind the counter looked impatient.

“Well, I’m thinking,” Rodney said irritably. “Nothing looks right. I mean, seriously, this purple stuff is edible? Oh wait!” Rodney tugged at his medic alert bracelet and spun it so he could read it. “I’m allergic to something…”

“Citrus,” John said.

Rodney flashed him a grateful smile. “I’m glad you remembered that.”

“I was just thinking no orange juice for me,” John said with a sly smirk.

Rodney licked his lips and waggled his eyebrows suggestively, which made John snort.

The server relaxed and smiled. “How about if I tell you what your favorites are, Dr. McKay?”

“Would you? Wow, thank you, that’s so very nice of you!” Rodney beamed at her, which made her blush. He pushed his tray toward her.

“Okay, this ‘purple stuff’ which you so maligned is called tormack, and it’s one of your all time favorites.” She glopped a heaping ladle on his plate. Rodney looked at her with misgivings. “Trust me,” she said calmly, “you love it. Ditto with the Not Quite Meatloaf.” She used a spatula to lift a generous portion off the warming tray and transfer it to Rodney’s plate. “Followed with green peas, because they are just about the only vegetable we can reliably get the Colonel to eat.” She smiled at John as she added peas to Rodney’s plate as well. “Bread’s down at the end of the aisle. Only two pieces, Dr. McKay; between you and Ronon, we’ve had to set limits.”

“Marie Antoinette should have died a terrible death,” Rodney said with a cheeky grin, taking back his tray.

“Who?” John asked. He pushed his tray toward the server. He noted she put less of everything on his plate.

Rodney scrunched up his face as he thought. “French Revolution. Guillotine. Off hand quip about letting the poor eat cake when they were crying for bread in the streets. Don’t know if it really happened or not. That’s all I got. History’s not my thing.”

“You keep saying that, but you certainly seem to know a lot about a lot of stuff.” John smiled at the server and thanked her as she passed back his tray. He noted he had a larger than normal helping of peas and he hoped he really did like them.

“Hey, wait!” There was just a hint of a whine in Rodney’s voice. “You gave John fresh strawberries. How come I didn’t get any?”

“You hate strawberries,” John said. “You ate a bowl of them once as a kid and got sick off of them. Haven’t touched them since.”

The server snapped her fingers and pointed at John. “Exactly.”

“Oh.” Rodney looked disappointed. “Hey, you remembered something!” He turned his beaming smile on John.

“Yeah, and at least this time, it didn’t slap me in the face either.” John nodded to the server and he and Rodney made their way toward the table where Evan and Parrish were seated.

“Mind if we join you?” It looked as though they might have interrupted a quarrel of some sort. The tension between Parrish and Evan was apparent, and John instantly regretted coming over to their table.

Rodney seemed not to notice. He was already sitting down before Evan got out the words, “Sure, no problem.” Evan raised an eyebrow at Rodney, but he’d already started on his food.

John took his seat slowly. “So, purple food, huh?”

Evan laughed. This seemed to be the icebreaker needed to shift everyone’s mood. Parrish began to extol the virtues of tormack as a food source, and within minutes, he and Rodney were trading recipes. Or at least, Parrish was providing recipes—Rodney was recalling every tormack dish he’s ever eaten. John ate a forkful thoughtfully. Okay, it was pretty good, but it wasn’t that good.

“This just goes to prove Dr. Keller’s theory,” Parris said as he leaned forward over his plate in suppressed excitement. “She thought that using scent and food would help trigger specific memories and have a kind of cascading effect on your memories overall. Memory is closely tied into the other senses, like scent, and hearing.”

John thought of the smell of Rodney’s skin as he’d pressed his nose up against Rodney’s neck. The feelings it triggered were all mixed up. He smiled when he felt Rodney place his hand on John’s thigh and give it a little squeeze. As far as John was concerned, dinner couldn’t be over soon enough.

“Let’s put this to the test.” Rodney removed his hand from John’s thigh and snagged a strawberry off John’s plate.

“You sure about that?” John cast him a warning glance.

Rodney brought the plump berry up to his lips, about to bite into it, when he wrinkled his nose like a cat that had smelled something bad. “Okay, maybe not. I can’t eat this. I’m suddenly reminded of just how sick these made me.”

John snatched the strawberry back. He held it by the stem and took a teasing bite off the end, letting his lips rest suggestively on the fruit before he bit down.

Rodney’s hand came back to lay on his thigh again, fingers digging in rhythmically. John smiled.

“Well,” Rodney said at last, tearing his gaze off John’s mouth. “Did I miss dessert? Because I didn’t get any.” He stood up, gave John a sly smirk, and took his tray back toward the serving station.

“Tell him.” Parrish spoke in a low, urgent tone, leaning across the table to speak to Evan.

“This is not the right time.” The look Evan shot Parrish was dark and threatening.

“Tell me what?” John asked. He slouched down into his chair, bringing his elbow up to rest on the chair’s back. Dinner didn’t seem that important any more.

“If you don’t I will. Before it’s too late.” Parrish wasn’t fazed by Evan’s formidable glare, which was kind of plucky. Parrish was a thin, weedy scientist type. Evan could probably take him down blindfolded and with one hand tied behind his back.

“Tell me what?” John asked again. His voice dropped in register; he heard a commanding tone enter his voice that made him sound not so much like he was asking as demanding more information.

Evan sighed, looking unhappy. “We saw you and McKay holding hands when you came into the room. And you two seem, ah, rather close.”

John looked from Evan to Parrish, who was blushing furiously now. “So?” John asked, not having a good feeling about this.

“So.” Evan looked around to see if anyone was listening, which should have been funny, given that the room was nearly empty. “So, same sex relationships are forbidden in the military. If anyone finds out, you’ll be dishonorably discharged—shipped back to Earth. Like that.” Evan snapped his fingers.

John felt sick and cold inside; the memory of his fight under the bleachers coming back to mind. He remembered now that his mother had insisted that he transfer schools—and that it had been one of the last things she’d stood up to his father about before she got sick. A sudden wave of loss swept over John, threatening to sink him.

He shut that carefully in a little box and tucked it away. Not now. Maybe not ever.

“The policy is called Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Parrish blurted out hastily. “It means that you can be gay and serve in the military, as long as you aren’t open about it and no one knows. And as long as you don’t give anyone grounds for investigating you. They’re going to repeal it soon, well they are, Evan.” Parrish’s aside to Evan was earnest, even as Evan frowned and tried to stop him from explaining further.

John didn’t move. “And you’re telling me this because…?”

Evan… no, Major Lorne, looked him straight in the eye. “Because it occurred to me, sir, that you might not be aware of this particular policy. I thought that as your XO, I should inform you of it, so that you could avoid any… situations that might arise through lack of knowledge of the regulation.”

“Well, that’s one way of putting it.” Parrish sounded sour. John flicked a glance in his direction, and Parrish flushed once more.

“Thank you, Lorne.” John stood up. “I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. Guess I should go spend a little time with the regs to make sure I keep things straight on other fronts too. Mind telling Dr. McKay that I’ll catch him later?”

He left without even waiting to hear how Lorne responded.

****

Ronon was the last person John expected to be buzzing his door chime. He thought it might be Rodney. He hoped in a desperate sort of way that it was Rodney, even though he’d been the one to do a bolt from the mess. He could only hope that Lorne and Parrish had explained things to McKay in such a way that he would understand.

John wasn’t sure he understood himself. Did this mean that he and Rodney didn’t have a thing going? If that was the case, how could they both be so attracted to each other?

John had put those thoughts away as unprofitable and had spent several hours pouring over the regs until his eyes started to cross. He knew now why he never became a lawyer—legalese bored the snot out of him. It was only as he rubbed his eyes and called out, “It’s open,” that he realized his father was the one that had pushed him toward law school. Huh.

John was lying on his bed, feet crossed at the ankle, laptop across his thighs. Ronon came into the center of the room and stopped. The door closed soundlessly behind him.

“What you up to?” Ronon, it would seem, always came to the point.

John yawned and stretched, bring his hands up by his ears as he spread his shoulder blades. “Been catching up on mission reports.”

Ronon made his way over to the only chair and took a seat without asking permission. “I thought you did that earlier.”

“I scanned a few before we met with Carter.” John indicated the laptop. “I didn’t want to go in cold for the meeting. But nothing like this. Did you know I’m fucking insane?”

“I like that about you.” Ronon grinned, leaning forward so that his elbows rested on his knees.

“Why are you here, Ronon? I don’t mean here in my quarters, but here in the city. Our coming here has totally fucked up the entire galaxy. Why are you still with us?”

Ronon looked at his hands for a long moment before lifting clear, leonine eyes to hold John’s gaze. “Yeah, you guys have made a lot of mistakes. But you are the ones that took out my tracking device—and no one else could do that. You’re the ones that found the city of the Ancestors and mixed things up enough so that the Wraith have real enemies for the first time in centuries. Oh, I know, people are pissed with you guys for waking the Wraith early. Truth is the second you guys stepped foot in Atlantis, nothing in Pegasus was ever going to be the same again.” His expression grew dark, murderous. “Being in hibernation didn’t keep the Wraith from attacking and destroying Sateda. The people who whine about the Wraith waking early? Well, they’re the ones that wanted to live their lives pretending the Wraith weren’t out there, and to leave the problem of how to fight them to the next generation. Nice gift to leave your kids.”

John shut the laptop and laid it on the table beside his bed. He swung his legs off the mattress and placed his feet on the floor. Sateda had been Ronon’s home world, and Ronon one of the few survivors. That much John had gleaned from the mission reports. He was about halfway through the second year now and the things that the expedition had faced read like something out of a comic book. A comic book written by sick, twisted minds.

“What about you? How’s the memory thing going?” Ronon got up to open the small fridge between his chair and John’s bed, pulling out a couple of bottles of beer. He held one out to John.

“Well, I’m finding my way around the city better.” He gave Ronon a fake smile, reminding him that John had not forgotten Ronon’s deliberately convoluted directions earlier in the day. Ronon flashed a grin in acknowledgement. John looked around for something to open the beer, only to watch Ronon twist the cap off as he retook his seat.

John copied him, pretending he’d always known it was a screw cap. He took a swig. Cold, just the way he liked it. “Some memories are just there—facts that I seem to know without remembering that I forgot them. Others are almost like visions—or flashbacks. Though that’s gotten better now. Seems like only the really intense stuff comes to me like that now.”

No sooner did he speak than he saw himself standing in front of the shimmering surface of an active Stargate. He was wearing his dress blues and holding one end of a casket. As he looked to his left, he could see Rodney serving as a pallbearer on the other side. The look Rodney gave him was one of sorrow, loss, and guilt.

It killed John that he didn’t remember who was in the coffin. The only thing that came through clearly was the relief that it wasn’t Rodney.

“You know,” Ronon said slowly, “I kind of envy you. It would be nice to not remember so much for a while.”

“Yeah.” John was quiet. “I can see where that might be the case.”

“Forget the past. Forget the reasons for the scars on your skin.” Ronon took a long pull from his bottle. “You could do it, you know. Start out fresh. What do you guys call it? A clean slate. Yeah. You could do it.” Ronon looked at him over the bottle as he drank, his eyes gleaming in the overhead light. He seemed to be trying to tell John something.

John thought he knew what it was.

“You mean me and Rodney.”

Ronon shrugged. “You like him. You always have. He likes you too, only he couldn’t admit it. That’s why he dated that Brown woman, and why he goes on and on about women in general. He’s like the minka, which rolls and cries and pretends to be lame, taking the predators deeper into the forest away from its nest.” Ronon pointed at John with his bottle of beer. “This is your chance, Sheppard. Your chance to be happy.”

John took another swallow before he spoke. The cold beer going down reminded him of long days at the beach, steaming crabs over a pit fire and laughing with friends about the day’s waves. You deserve a little happiness.

He set the bottle down and looked at Ronon. “You think I should be happy. That it’s really important, right?”

“Life’s too short not to go after what you want.” Ronon spoke with the voice of hard experience.

“More important than fighting the Wraith? Because I’d have to chose, you know. Being with Rodney or staying here and fighting the Wraith. They won’t let me do both.”

Ronon stood up and crossed over to stand in front of John. He handed John’s beer back to him. “Death to the Wraith,” Ronon said, holding out his own bottle.

“I’ll drink to that.” John clinked his bottle with Ronon’s before taking a swallow.

****

Rodney paused for a moment outside the door to John’s quarters, momentarily unsure of his welcome. He’d been a bit concerned when he’d returned to their table, carrying a couple of pudding cups that the server had placed on his tray when he’d come up to look over the desserts, to find that John had already left. Evan had told him that John’d had to go, but there was something in his expression and the quick glance he’d darted at Parrish, who was looking equally uncomfortable, that told Rodney that something was up.

“Oh?” he’d asked, his gaze shifting curiously between them. “Where’d he go?”

After another look at Parrish, Evan had muttered something about the Colonel needing to review some military procedures. At that point, Rodney had shrugged, putting Evan’s obvious unease down to some weird chain of command issue, and proceeded to eat his pudding. The conversation had pretty much run out at that point, both Parrish and Evan seemingly at a loss of what to say, so Rodney had simply finished off his cups, waved goodbye to them and left. He had intended to head back to the labs at first, reasoning that if John was busy, he might as well make himself busy too until they could both be not-busy together. But before he’d even made it out of the commissary, Evan had come up behind him, placing a hand on Rodney’s arm to stop him from leaving.

“Wait,” Evan had said, the conflicted look still clearly visible on his face. “You should probably go see the Colonel – John, I mean.”

“Okay,” Rodney had agreed, his curiosity piqued again. “Not sure what help I can be of about military protocols though,” he’d added. “I don’t really think I have, or ever have had, any interest in them in the slightest.”

Evan had smiled tightly in return. “No, I guess not, doc,” he’d replied. “But I think you should go find him all the same.”

Which Rodney had every intention of doing right then. Only somehow, he’d gotten distracted when he’d passed through the Gate Room and Chuck had stopped him to ask how he was doing. The next thing he knew, he’d spent several hours poking around the sensor array and asking Chuck questions about the capacity of the long-range scanners.

It was nearly eleven pm when Rodney found himself at John’s quarters, a whole host of different emotions playing through his mind. He felt an underlying simmer of desire at the prospect of being alone with John again - alone and somewhere completely private - but he also felt a small twist of unease, as if part of him was nervous about what would happen and what it would mean.

Shaking his head, Rodney told himself that he was being ridiculous. Like he’d told John earlier, until their memories returned, the best thing they had to go on was their inherent impulses – the bits of them which, memory aside, remained true to who they really were. He’d been following his since he’d woken up without a memory and so far they hadn’t steered him wrong. From his interactions with Radek and Teyla, to his growing knowledge about Atlantis and the rekindling of his relationship with John, he thought he was doing a pretty good job of putting the various pieces of his life back together.

With that in mind, Rodney swiped his hand over the sensor pad and waited while the doors to John’s quarters slowly slid open to admit him.

As he entered the room, he paused for a moment to take it in, curious to see if this room would spark any memories in a way his own quarters had not. The furnishings of John’s room were similar to his own – a standard desk, chair and computer, a rather narrow single bed and some bookshelves. However, scattered amongst this, there were also a few obvious touches of John. There was a large poster above the bed of some guy in a long black coat holding a guitar, a bag of golf clubs standing propped up against one wall, a pile of comic books and a thick, well-thumbed book resting on the night stand. John himself was sitting on his bed and looking over at Rodney in surprise, a couple of beer bottles resting on the floor beside him.

“Oh, sorry,” Rodney said. “I didn’t realize the door was just going to let me in like that.” Then, suddenly remembering Teyla’s words from earlier that day. “Or, at least, I’d forgotten that it would.”

John blinked, “My door lets you in?”

Rodney waved a hand towards it. “Apparently so,” he replied. “But, don’t worry, Teyla said it was only me you’d given access to. You, Teyla and Ronon all have access to my quarters,” he confided with a grin. “There’ve been attacks actually inside the city itself - I guess I like knowing I’ve got the three of you to keep me safe.”

When John didn’t answer, Rodney took a step back, suddenly unsure of his welcome.

“Umm, is it okay?” he asked. “If I come in, I mean? Evan said-”

“Evan said what?” John interrupted sharply, his gaze snapping to Rodney’s.

Now it was Rodney’s turn to blink, surprised at the vehemence of John’s tone. “Well, nothing really,” he replied, edging inside the room again. “Just that it would be a good idea if I came to talk to you.”

John let out a big breath of air, rolling himself up to standing and then turning away from Rodney to stride over to the large window at the far side of his quarters. The window was framed by sheer curtains shot through with silver and the sight of John standing there, his back ramrod straight and shoulders tight with tension sent an echo of memory through Rodney.

He was here, in this room, with John. John was upset, tense and ill at ease and Rodney was… Rodney paused, trying to make out what’s happening to him in the memory. He was not well, Rodney realized, something had happened to him and he was sick and scared and, god, he was dying.

Rodney made small, involuntary sound of distress as he realized that fact, which had John turning away from the window and taking a step towards him. The very act of him doing so prompted yet another memory.

It was part of the same memory, Rodney was sure. He was still sick, still dying, his thoughts racing and his head pounding as tried desperately to do something, tried to achieve something to stop the decline of his body. Standing here now, in John’s quarters, he couldn’t recall what exactly it was he was trying to achieve, only that John had been trying to help him do it. But John’s presence hadn’t been a help at all. If anything, it had been a hindrance. Because what Rodney was trying to do would mean he’d have to leave John and he hadn’t wanted to do that. Even if the alternative meant his eventual death, he could now very clearly remember that he simply couldn’t choose to leave John.

“I didn’t want to ascend,” he said to himself, only realizing that he’d spoken aloud when John asked. “What?”

Rodney waved the question away. “Nothing, nothing,” he said, glancing up to look over at John. “Just another memory flash – it was a bit unsettling but it’s passed now.” He felt relieved because, as horrible as the memory was, it had obviously turned out all right in the end. He hadn’t died and he hadn’t had to ascend – whatever the hell that was – and leave John. Indeed, if anything, the memory only served to reinforce what he already knew about himself and how he felt about John.

“Rodney,” John said, his tone serious. “You shouldn’t be here now.”

“I know, I know,” Rodney replied. “You need to do some catching up on…” he waved a hand in the air, casting about for the right phrase. “Well, on whatever you military people need to catch up on.” He shrugged, “I know it’s late, but Evan said it was important, so here I am.” He grinned, taking a few steps forward and reaching out a hand to touch John. “Besides which, I thought maybe I could convince you to leave your work ‘til tomorrow and get back to where we left things before we saw Colonel Carter.”

To Rodney’s surprise, John jerked back at his words, moving himself quickly away from Rodney and moving so his bed lay between them. “No,” he said flatly. “No, I can’t. Rodney, I’m not… We weren’t…”

“We weren’t what?” Rodney asked, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“We weren’t like that,” John said, shaking his head slowly. “We weren’t together – we aren’t together.”

Rodney frowned, turning the statement over in his mind – they weren’t together? – it just didn’t make sense. “But we must have been,” he insisted. “I mean, everything I feel about us, all of the memories I’ve managed to get back, the way we are when we’re together…” he trailed off for a moment, one hand gesturing expansively in the air as if to encompass everything possible about their relationship. “It’s all telling me that we are together.”

But John was still shaking his head. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, McKay,” he said. “Other than the fact that you’re wrong.”

McKay. The use of his surname made Rodney start. And, more worrying than even John’s words, was the expression on his face as he said them – blank and utterly emotionless. Something inside Rodney shivered just slightly at the sight. This was John’s game face, he realized, and it suddenly dawned on Rodney that there was no reaching John now.

Still, he had to try. “But -”

“But nothing,” John interrupted shortly. “Whatever you think you might remember is nothing but bullshit. There is no us – never has been, never will be.”

“But what about earlier?” Rodney countered, attempting to rally even though the words cut him to the quick.

“Earlier was a mistake,” John replied flatly. “It meant nothing – it can’t mean anything.”

“Wait, wait,” Rodney cut in quickly. “What do you mean can’t? Why can’t it?”

“Because I’m not like that,” John replied. “I don’t… I can’t… I’m not gay.”

“Well, you could’ve fooled me,” Rodney snapped back, his anger spiking in the face of John’s patently ridiculous statement. “I mean, I’m pretty sure that was your dick you had pressed up against mine earlier while we were kissing.”

“Look, McKay,” John replied. “I don’t want to discuss this – I’m telling you, that was nothing. I’m not gay, we’re not together, and that’s the end of it.”

“But why?” Rodney asked, unable to let it go without any kind of explanation. “This makes no sense at all.”

Suddenly it was as if something in John snapped. He abruptly turned away from Rodney, reaching down to pluck a pad from the bed where he’d been lying. “Here,” he said, throwing the pad at Rodney. “Read that – that’s why.”

Only just managing to catch the pad, Rodney looked down at it with trepidation. On it seemed to be some kind of regulations. Rodney skimmed them quickly, taking in the gist, phrases like ‘propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts’ and ‘create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale’ jumping out at him and making him feel nauseous. “What is this?” he asked, looking up at John.

“That’s Congress’ policy concerning homosexuality in the Armed Forces,” John said. “That’s what says I can’t be gay and serve.”

“No,” Rodney argued. “It can’t be – this is just…” he shook his head, searching for the right words. “It’s wrong, plain and simple.”

“Right or wrong, it’s the law,” John replied, suddenly sounding very tired. “So, you see, there can’t have been anything between us.”

“Because you have to do your duty,” Rodney said, understanding flooding through him.

He suddenly found himself in the midst of another memory. He was standing on the command center, exhausted but high on terror-induced adrenalin, watching a screen that was showing a tiny blue dot streak towards a barrage of red.

John’s voice suddenly came over the radio. “You know, if this works, somebody might have to do it again.

“Understood,” came the reply from a tired sounding woman at Rodney’s side. Elizabeth.

In the memory, Rodney stared at the screen in horror, realizing just who was flying the jumper he himself had fitted with a thermonuclear weapon. “You let Sheppard fly that jumper?”

Elizabeth stared at him steadily for a moment, her resolve clear. “Help me arm the self destruct in case this fails,” she said and Rodney found himself moving quickly at her side, knowing that John would not even have hesitated before taking the suicide mission upon himself.

Snapping back to the present with this newly remembered knowledge of John in the forefront of his mind, Rodney found himself at a loss. He knew now that John would never abandon his duty to Atlantis and, if that meant sacrificing a relationship and ignoring his own desires, then John would make the sacrifice without question.

He took a step back, moving towards the door, suddenly feeling an overwhelming need to just get away. “I… I understand,” he stuttered, shame crashing over him as he recalled how he’d basically forced himself on John, convincing him that they’d been in a relationship despite not having any real evidence. “I’ll just go then.”

And he was out the door and practically running down the corridor before John could say anything more.

****

Rodney wasn’t sure where he was going, only that he had to get away. As he stumbled along blindly, he felt like his head was going to explode as memory after memory came tumbling down upon him. The shame he felt over telling John they were a couple when they weren’t seemed to have triggered the shame he’d felt over every other failed relationship in his past.

He had a vision of a diamond engagement ring in a black velvet box, but knew that he’d never even got to the actual proposal. Then, before that, back on Earth, he saw himself asking out Samantha Carter, nerves and a sense of an almost awed respect warring inside him as he waited for her response. He felt again the crushing blow of her refusal – the feeling of not being good enough. That feeling – of not being worth it – seemed to echo back through his past. From the blonde girl in high school – Emma, he thought her name was – who’d turned him down in favor of one of the football players, to his lab partner in college, Christopher, who had gone off with their professor.

To his relief, Rodney realized that he was outside his own quarters and he staggered inside gratefully. The odd sensation of returning memories continued, pieces of his childhood – the thrill of learning, the despondency of being different, the driving need to be recognized and wanted – all falling into place and making him slowly understand why he was who he was. His social awkwardness, driven not by a disinterest in people per se but rather by a greater interest in other things, leading to failed friendships and relationships, all of which fed back into itself to make him even more of an oddity – seemingly rude, impatient and disinterested.

As he fell back on his bed, the flow of memories seemed to ebb and Rodney let out a sigh of relief. Testing himself, he found that, even now, his memory still had large gaps. The bits and pieces of his past that he had seen were floating like leaves on the still-muddied waters of his life. He shook his head, wishing that at least some of what he remembered could have been good.

Just then a final memory hit. He was working someplace white and very cold, his finger-tips almost numb as his hands flew excitedly over alien consoles. He was working alongside other scientists – Carter and a brown-haired man with glasses. They were working on something big – something bigger than the Stargate, something more powerful and far more mysterious… Atlantis. He got flashes of high ceilings, hordes of scientists all hard at work and vast banks of naquadah generators. One particular image stood out – a huge chair, distinctly alien in design, set up on some sort of platform. He had flashes of a blue-eyed man sitting there uncomfortably – Carson he realized with a pang – while Rodney cajoled and shouted at him in turn.

Then the scene changed and the chair, which had been largely dark and unresponsive, rogue drone aside, suddenly lit up a bright blue, practically pulsing with energy and life. In his mind’s eye, Rodney saw himself hurrying to see the cause of the change. Instead of Carson, he found a stranger sitting in the chair wearing the SGCs standard military fatigues and a definitely non-standard non-military haircut. Their eyes locked for a second and Rodney just knew.

He smiled at the man, the thrill of new discoveries pounding through his veins. “Think about where we are in the solar system.”

As the memory faded, Rodney understood why, despite his feelings, he’d never pursued John romantically. Backward and bigoted military regulations aside, he hadn’t wanted to be rejected by John. He’d wanted what they had –their partnership on SGA-1 and their friendship. To risk all that had never been worth it. Rodney squeezed his eyes tightly shut, cursing himself for having pushed John when he had no memory to know better. He could only hope that he hadn’t ruined things, that maybe his lack of memory was enough for John to forgive him and for them to simply go back to the way things were.

****

Rodney slept fitfully and awoke with a sore head and an aching back. As he glanced at the clock on his nightstand he found that it was still early, but his mind was already racing so he rose to his feet and made his way into the bathroom. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he found he was no longer surprised to find the face of a slowly balding middle-aged man looking back at him. Although he couldn’t recall the exact content of his dreams, he was pretty certain he’d been reliving some of his experiences of Pegasus. As he shaved and brushed his teeth, he found images of Stargates, DHDs and any number of alien devices tumbling through his head. He concentrated on the images as he finished washing and got dressed, grateful for anything that would keep the thoughts of John at bay.

As he left his quarters, he vacillated for a moment, torn between heading for the labs and dropping by the commissary for breakfast. He was itching to get to work, to continue reviewing the project files now that he was certain that his memory was returning and to get back to some real work. Colonel Carter may have grounded both him and John and restricted their access to live projects until their memories returned, but none of that would prevent Rodney from doing his own research into refining the sensor grid. After all, Radek had seemed very keen on the idea and he was acting chief science officer.

He’d made it only as far as the transporter, tablet tucked under one arm, when he heard the sound of rapid footsteps behind him. Turning with some trepidation, half-expecting to find John coming up behind him, Rodney was relieved to see Teyla. She looked bright and refreshed, her face breaking out into a smile as he raised a hand in greeting.

“Good morning, Rodney,” she said, her gaze scanning his face in a maternal fashion. “You did not sleep well?”

Rodney sighed, now resigned to being unable to hide anything from her. “Not really,” he replied as he gestured for her to go ahead of him into the transporter. “I had lots of dreams – all muddled and confused. Made it hard to sleep.”

She regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, her gaze flicking down to the tablet under his arm, before reaching out to press the button that would take them to the commissary. “Perhaps you should take that as a good sign,” she suggested. “An indication that your memory is returning.”

“Yes,” Rodney said. “I guess it is.”

“Ah, you remember something, then,” she asked, stepping out of the transporter as they arrived and heading towards the large double-doors that led into the commissary.

“A few things,” Rodney replied as they headed over to the food. “Bits and pieces of my childhood, a few things about the mission here, things like that.”

“That is a good sign,” Teyla said, reaching out to fill a bowl with fruit salad and yogurt.

Rodney hummed his agreement as he surveyed the food choices, instinctively moving away from the jug of orange juice and towards the hot food. Without someone to guide him this time, he followed his nose and filled his plate with some scrambled eggs, a couple of sausages and what looked like strangely colored fried tomatoes. As he considered the coffee mugs, trying to decide which one would hold the most, Teyla came up beside him, a couple of slices of brown bread now accompanying her fruit. She picked up a couple of tea cups and placed them on Rodney’s tray and then proceeded to fill a teapot with hot water and some fragrant leaves.

“This will be much better for your head,” she assured Rodney as she put the steaming pot on her own tray and led him away from the coffee. “And you have plenty of coffee down in your lab.”

Still yearning after the coffee, Rodney gave in as gracefully as he could manage and allowed Teyla to guide him over to a table near the windows. The commissary was still quiet and he didn’t spot anyone he recognized as he took his seat.

“John and Ronon will be out for their morning run,” Teyla informed him as she set out the tea things and poured them both a cup.

At the sound of John’s name, something twisted in Rodney’s gut. The embarrassment of the previous evening came back to him in force and he recalled Teyla’s comments on the subject. How she’d as good as told him that he should pursue things with John. As he watched her drink her tea, her concern for him palpable, he couldn’t work out why she would do such a thing. Everything he knew about her – from his own response to her and her support of him through his amnesia to his slowly growing awareness of their shard past – all of it pointed to the fact that she genuinely cared about him. Why, then, would she suggest that he and John were more than was true?

“Why?” he asked before he could stop himself. “Why did you make me think there was something between me and John?”

Teyla paused, her cup half-way to her mouth. She put her cup down slowly. “What happened?” she asked.

Rodney looked away, feeling himself start to blush. “What do you think happened?” he asked bitterly. “I followed my feelings – I kissed him – only for us both to find out later that we were never a couple and that we aren’t even legally allowed to be one!”

Teyla’s expression filled with sadness at Rodney’s explanation. “What do you remember?” she asked quietly.

Rodney huffed and looked away. “I remembered that I can’t have him,” he said. “I remembered that I’m bad with people and even worse with relationships. I remembered why John would never jeopardize his career – his reason to be on Atlantis – for me.” He turned back to Teyla, long past anger and well on his way into despondency. “I remembered why I decided long ago just to be grateful that he was my friend.”

“And now?” Teyla prompted.

Rodney let out a long breath, shrugging. “I don’t know,” he said. “I saw him last night – he explained about the regulations, said he wasn’t gay – that he couldn’t be with me – and it had all been a mistake.”

“I am sorry,” Teyla said, her tone sincere. “I had hoped… Well, Ronon and I had both hoped that your memory loss would help you see what you truly mean to one another. Give you a second chance without your past influencing your present.”

“Well, maybe you should have left well enough alone,” Rodney snapped, his anger back in force. “Maybe you should have realized that there were good reasons why we hadn’t done anything before. Maybe then John and I would at least still be friends.”

And, with that, he stood and left the commissary, leaving his breakfast uneaten and Teyla’s cry of “Rodney” echoing behind him.

****

Rodney ended up in the lab with a big cup of coffee at his side and his laptop in front of him. The main lab had been mostly empty when he’d arrived, so he’d headed straight for the small office he and Radek had worked in the previous day. Rifling through Radek’s drawers, he’d found the scribbled notes they’d made on the sensor grid upgrades and taken them over to his own desk, needing to immerse himself in work immediately. He didn’t need to think about the fact that he had managed ruin not one, but two, of his few close friendships in less than 24 hours.

Losing himself in his work, he vaguely noticed Radek’s arrival and, when his stomach growled some time later, he looked up from his screen to find that the main lab was full and bustling and it was already 11am. Radek had his head buried in his own screen, so Rodney wandered out into the main lab, coffee cup in his had, intent on hunting down some food and drink. Spotting a coffee percolator in the far corner, Rodney made a bee-line for it, happy to see a collection of pastries on a small plate beside it.

He refilled his mug and picked out one of the pastries, examining it carefully to make sure the jam filling was neither strawberry nor marmalade. As he took a big bite, he turned to look over the room, relishing in the hustle and bustle going on around him. Most of the scientists present seemed to be engrossed in their work and as his gaze ran over the screens that were visible from his position, he could pick out different teams of people who appeared to be working on similar projects. There was a collection of four desks to his right that had been pushed together to make one big workspace. In the center of the joined tables was a bulky-looking piece of equipment, a scanner of some sort Rodney thought, the vague stirrings of a memory coming back to him as he took in its shape and size. Around it, three people were gathered and one of them, a tall blond man, was hooking the device up to a laptop. A woman was watching the process carefully, her gaze darting between what the man was doing and the pad she held in her hand. A second woman was seated in front of the laptop, her fingers flying over the keys as the man made the final connections and the device lit up with a low hum.

Rodney grinned at the sight, a feeling of contentment flowing through him to see the scientists - his scientists - working so well and so successfully together. Despite the fact that he couldn’t recall the exact details of the duties Atlantis’ science department had performed, he found he most certainly could recall a sense of pride to be leading them. With a pang, he realized that his feelings must closely mirror John’s when it came to his people and the realization only served to hammer home to Rodney how useless a dream it was to think that he and John could ever have a relationship when it would mean John losing his position on Atlantis.

His good mood vanished almost instantly and he started to make his way back to the office, hoping that he would be able to once again lose himself in writing a new analysis program for the sensor grid. He’d been pleased to find that he’d made good progress in the hours he’d been working – pulling out some sample data from the database and then working on upgrading the program currently used to interpret the data. In the end, he’d decided that it would be better to start from scratch rather than trying to merge his new ideas onto an already large and complicated piece of software. With this in mind, he’d begun to write his own program, one that would deal specifically with the imprecise and largely approximated data obtained from the long-range scans, based on the conversation he’d had with Radek the previous day.

He was just making his way back across the lab when a voice called out to him. “Dr. McKay?”

He turned to find a man and a woman looking at him somewhat nervously.

“Yes,” he replied, trying to pull a name to put to either of their faces, but failing.

“Um,” the woman said, who’d spoken before, sounding as nervous as she looked. “I’m Dr Lily Danvers and this is Dr Lee Cheung. Dr Zelenka said-”

“Ah!” Rodney exclaimed as the names struck a cord, snapping his fingers together. “Yes, excellent – you’re both programmers, right?”

Danvers and Cheung exchanged a quick glance before Cheung answered. “Yes,” he replied. “We’ve recently finished working on the analysis programs for the city’s internal systems and-”

“Perfect,” Rodney said, interrupting again in his excitement to put them both to work. “You’re just the people I need, come with me.”

****

With Danvers and Cheung at his side, Rodney found he was able to spend a very productive day in the lab. Both scientists knew Atlantis’ systems and intricate Ancient programming language intimately and seemed familiar with Rodney’s rather haphazard management style. Although they lacked both Rodney’s overall vision for the project, and the mathematical ability to code and test the new equations for the solver fully, they were more than skilled enough to follow Rodney’s lead and work on the interface between the sensor grid and the new program.

At odd moments during the day, Rodney found his mind drifting back to his conversation with Teyla. Despite his anger at his situation with John and her part in creating it in the first place, his impulse was still to find her and apologize for his outburst. His growing awareness of his past, however, made him hold back – unwilling to risk exposing himself with an apology and leaving himself open to her anger and scorn. So he re-focused his attention on the project, pushing himself harder as he consulted his and Radek’s notes and the Ancient database, as well as questioning Danvers and Cheung incessantly, as he drove the project forward.

They all grabbed a late lunch with Radek and some other scientists from the department in a fairly large room adjacent the main lab. There was a moment of quiet when Rodney walked in with Danvers and Cheung, but Rodney chose to ignore it in favor of looking around.

“I didn’t realize this room was here,” he said. The room had a large table in the middle of it around which everyone was sitting and there was a large fridge and a microwave as well as a good collection of food from the commissary. It was very clearly a room designed for scientists in mind, with computer terminals, pads, and even blackboards supplied. There was a sofa set up against the far wall and a pile of well-thumbed journals next to it. He could make out the titles of Physics Review Letters B and the Journal of Physics A, as well as the odd copy of New Scientist and Scientific American thrown in for good measure.

“We often eat down here,” Danvers explained to him as she led him across the room. “Although you don’t tend to do so that often.”

“Oh?” Rodney asked, looking around at the blackboard-lined walls covered with equations and feeling a memory stir of what he thought was a university he’d once visited back on Earth - the Erwin Schrödinger Institute his mind supplied. “Why not?”

Danvers frowned at the question, pausing mid-action as she was opening the fridge to take out a platter with an assortment of freshly prepared sandwiches. “I’m not really sure,” she replied. “Although I think it might have something to do with your role on SGA-1. You’re out on missions at least a couple of times a week and the rest of the time you either just eat at your desk or up in the commissary.”

At the reminder of his team, some of his previous disquiet came back. “Well,” he said as he grabbed a couple of what looked like ham sandwiches and he took a seat at the table next to Cheung. “I won’t be going off-world until my memory returns, so I guess that means you’re stuck with me full-time for a while.”

Radek, who was seated opposite, let out a snort of laughter at that. “We must be on our best behavior, yes?” he said, grinning around the room at large. “Make sure not to let Rodney know what we get up to when he is not here.”

“I’m sure you’re all perfectly behaved,” Rodney replied, grinning back at Radek. “At least, as far as I can tell, you can’t be any worse than me.” He felt the tension he’d picked up earlier as he’d entered drain from the room as he joined in with the joke.

The discussion revolved mostly around the various projects people where working on. Cheung and Danvers got into an in-depth discussion with a couple of the other computer scientists about the best way to configure the interface program, while Rodney and Radek started discussing the merits of String Theory versus loop quantum gravity. As Rodney was finishing up the last of his sandwiches and was just about to go, a new voice entered the conversation.

“Excuse me, Dr McKay,” the voice said. “But did I hear you say you’re working on the long range sensors?”

Rodney turned to find a shorthaired brunette woman standing at his side. She had obviously just arrived as she had a plate of untouched food in her hands and had, presumably been making her way to one of the empty seats further down the table.

“Yes,” Rodney replied, looking across to Radek in the hopes of getting the woman’s name from him.

“Ah, Rodney,” Radek said, coming to the rescue. “This is Dr. Melanie Philips, she is one of the astrophysicists.”

Nodding in greeting, Rodney asked turned back to Philips. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” she said, balancing her plate on one hand so she could pull out a datapad from her pocket. “It’s just that I’ve been reviewing some of the astrometric data for one of the star-mapping projects and something odd has come up.” She tapped a few buttons on the pad with her thumb and then handed it down to Rodney. “I was going to speak to Dr. Zelenka this afternoon,” she said, glancing over at Radek. “But then I heard you talking and it seemed to make sense to bring it up now.”

Taking the pad from her, Rodney looked over the grid of readings she’d pulled up. The patterns were mostly familiar – background radiation, radio waves, neutrino fluxes and the like. Nothing stood out to him as unusual until he scrolled down to inspect the lower end of the scale. “What is this?” he asked, frowning at the unusual pattern of discharge that had been recorded.

“That’s just it,” Philips said. “I have no idea.”

Rodney handed the pad over to Radek and then stood up, gesturing for Philips to put her plate down and then waving at Cheung to move over a seat to allow her to sit down.

“This is most strange,” Radek said, running a hand through his hair as he stared down at the pad in bemusement. “When was it recorded?” he asked.

“This one was taken just a few hours ago,” Philips replied, nodding her head towards the pad. “But I’ve since had a look back through the logs and it looks like we’ve been picking up readings just like it periodically over the past few days.”

“Which hadn’t been noticed because of the whole fever thing,” Rodney said. He looked over at Radek. “So what do we usually do when we get something like this? I take it the Ancient database didn’t have a record for it?”

“No,” Philips replied. “And I did a quick trawl of the SGC logs as well, but there’s nothing there either.”

“It is not a pattern I’m familiar with either,” Radek said. “But I am unhappy with this lack of explanation. The pattern is very regular and below the frequency of any known naturally occurring phenomena.”

Rodney nodded, his mind pulling up and then dismissing several possibilities in turn. He vacillated for a moment as the word pulsar flashed through his brain, but ultimately rejected even this possibility as the variation in the readings, even if they really are strictly periodic, were far too complex. “The Replicators perhaps?” he asked, making the jump based on a gut feeling and what he could recall about both the Replicators and the Wraith. “This doesn’t have their usual subspace marker, though.”

Radek met his gaze with a worried look on his face. “Perhaps it is them,” he agreed. “But we need more information first. Because this?” he asked, gesturing down to the pad and letting out a long breath. “Pffft, I do not even know what this is. Could be nothing, but could be something.”

Despite the potential seriousness of the situation, Rodney found himself grinning. “Well then,” he said, glancing over at Danvers and Cheung and seeing them grin back at him in reply. “Lucky for all of us, we have just the thing.”

****

Quite a crowd had gathered in the main science lab by the time Rodney, with Radek’s help, had put the finishing touches to the math and linked his approximation program to the interface Danvers and Cheung were finalizing. As they set up to do the analysis on one of the core-linked computer terminals in the main lab, Rodney stepped back and let the two programmers make the final adjustments. Radek shot him a surprised glance as he did so.

“What?” Rodney asked, curious to know what about his behavior was prompting such a response.

Radek shook his head slightly. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just… well, you usually like to do the final touches yourself.”

Rodney shrugged. “They know the system far better than I do,” he said. “At least for now. And even if I did remember all about it, it’s good for them to do it – what was it you said I was trying to do? Involve more of the department in the final stages of projects, right?”

“Right,” Radek said, looking pleased.

“Well then,” Rodney said, turning back with a sense of satisfaction and thinking briefly back to Teyla’s words about not letting his past influence his present. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

When Danvers and Cheung were finished, Rodney stepped forward, clapping his hands together to get everyone’s attention. “Right people,” he said as the room fell silent. “I’m afraid to say that I don’t expect you’ll get much of a show tonight. The analysis program is designed to run through the long-range sensor data from the past week, pulling out all signals and emissions that do not fall within the natural parameters set by readings from both the Ancient and the SGC databases. It will then analyze the remaining readings and extrapolate from what we’ve managed to pick up. I estimate it will take anywhere between 24 and 36 hours for the program to run its course, but when it’s finished, we should end up with a better idea of what, if anything, is being transmitted. If it is something targeting us, we’ll then have a clearer picture, albeit a composite one, of what the intention behind it is.”

Rodney paused then and looked around the room, taking in the expectant and interested faces of his department. “So, any questions?”

A silence followed, so he turned to the console, inputting the final initiation sequence before gesturing towards Philips to do the honors. “After all,” he said to her. “You’re the one who spotted the problem.”

As Philips set the program running, a smattering of applause went through the room.

“Good to have you back, Rodney,” a voice shouted from somewhere, causing a ripple of laughter and other shouts of agreement to run through the room.

Rodney grinned, feeling that at least here in his lab, with his science and surrounded by his people, he had got his life back. “It’s good to be back,” he said. Now if only he could work out how to get this sense of achievement out there in the rest of Atlantis - with his team, with Teyla and, perhaps most importantly of all, with John.

****

After John had sent Rodney away from his quarters, his harsh words to Rodney had kept ringing in his ears. Whatever you think you might remember is nothing but bullshit. There is no us – never has been, never will be. He tried going back to the mission reports, but he was too restless to read a dry cataloging of events (he suspected that key elements had been left out anyway) and the video footage available was even worse. All too often, he seemed to be sharing a goofy smile with Rodney. He felt as though his emotions were right there on his face for everyone to see.

He paced around the room, angry with himself for not being able to get a grip on his feelings and shove them back into the small box where he’d been keeping them all these years. It was as though he was jumping out of his skin—he felt a burning need to move, to clear his head. He realized that nothing but a run would do, so he changed into sweat pants and pulled out his track shoes from the closest.

He vaguely remembered the route that he’d taken with Ronon that morning. Ronon had seemed a little uncertain just what to do with John when Carter had announced the babysitting assignments.

“What do we usually do together?” John had asked.

Ronon’s grin had been downright evil. “We run.”

And run they had.

Running was something John could do easily—he knew instinctively that he’d been doing it for years. Running 5k every morning was little different from a casual stroll down the driveway for the newspaper—at least in the military, that is. From the stark, basic information John had discovered about himself, he seemed to be career military.

The notion that he’d given his life to the service of his country—and that it had somehow become the service of his planet, living on military base in another galaxy…well, John had to wonder about the kind of man who would do that. Who would leave everything behind and walk through a Stargate without looking back? Someone with nothing to lose. From what little he could remember of his private life, he got the distinct impression this was the case.

Running with Ronon had been different, in that Ronon had made the morning’s jog look effortless, and John had been the one having a hard time keeping up. He’d felt a little bit like the old collie being outperformed by the young pup. He’d tried but failed to recall how the rest of that story had gone. He’d wondered if it was going to be like this the rest of his life—great chunks of his education, his cultural background, his history—simply missing.

It wasn’t until they’d run past an open balcony and John had seen the ghostly outlines of two moons—one giant, one small—that he’d finally gotten it. Ronon was an alien. It had been a weird but comforting realization. Well, hell, if you were going to be taking on monsters all over the galaxy, then it only made sense to have someone like Ronon at your back. From what he could tell, they’d have all been toast with this fever thing if Ronon and Teyla hadn’t figured it out for them.

He’d then wondered what the surfing was like on a planet with two moons.

This run tonight, however, was as different from the morning’s as the night sky over Atlantis was different from the view from Earth. John started out on the now-familiar path, nodding to one of the sentries as he passed him in the corridor. But whereas this morning’s run had been about getting his blood pumping and maybe playing Keeping Up with the Ronons, this run wasn’t about fitness, or routine, or triggering some memories by doing something he always did. It was about outrunning his demons.

He followed the empty corridors as they curved around the city. The lights grew dimmer as he left the more densely populated areas. In some places, the halls were lit only by odd tubular chambers that were filled with slow moving bubbles. He pushed himself harder, running faster, the sound of his footfalls and his breathing the only things he could hear.

He ran a long time.

As he ran, he let his thoughts wander in and out of his mind at will, only shutting them down if they strayed too close to Rodney, his family, or anything in his past. He didn’t want to remember. If it was possible to do his job here in this alien city on this strange planet in a foreign galaxy, well, that was all he really needed. The past—that was just heavy chains and lockboxes around his ankles, weighing him down. He frowned, wondering where the image of giant padlocks and metal boxes had come from, and then shrugged it away. He didn’t know. He didn’t care.

Eventually, his rhythm began to falter. Finally, his t-shirt ringed with sweat, he stumbled to a stop and placed his hands on knees to catch his breath. He didn’t know where he was. The city was fucking enormous. It had to be the size of…of some really big city back on Earth. Oh good one, John. Smooth, very smooth. He couldn’t help it; he snickered at his inability to think of one major metropolis on the planet of his birth, and then snapped his fingers. Of course. Gotham.

The sections he’d been running through looked largely unexplored. It occurred to him belatedly that he was in violation of Carter’s orders again, and her words about booby traps rested uneasily in the back of his mind.

The corridor smelled of mold and salt water. He was going to have to find one of those transporter-thingys to make his way back to the main area, unless he wanted a long walk home. Taking a deep breath and blowing it out between his lips, he straightened. One of his calves threatened to cramp—he could feel the burning deep within the muscle. He leaned into the wall with both hands and stretched his leg back and down, pushing his heel into the floor and holding it there to release the tight muscle.

Underneath his hands, the wall seemed to warm to his touch. He eased out of the stretch carefully, standing straight as he removed his hands from the wall. He studied his palms, opening and closing his fingers. Nothing odd there. Cautiously, he touched the wall again, this time with just the tip of his finger.

A tiny circle of light marked where his finger contacted the wall. He removed his finger hastily, only to see the glow fade gently, as though it was never there. Curious and unable to stop himself, he touched the wall again. This time, in addition to lighting up where he touched it, a small chime sounded as well.

He mopped his face with the bottom of his t-shirt and glanced up and down the corridor. It was just an empty hallway. The bubble lights were gurgling, all else was quiet. He didn’t get a sense of any danger. If he was starring in a horror movie, the soundtrack hadn’t turned ominous. He felt peaceful, more calm than he’d felt all day.

He touched the wall again, this time in a slightly higher spot. The tiny circle of light re-appeared, but this time the pitch of the chime was higher too. Pursuing his lips, John touched the wall approximately in the original spot, then at the higher location. As the sections lit up and chimed, he rapidly touched a panel much lower than the others. The wall responded with a deeper, resonant tone.

“Now you’re just playing with me.” He spoke with fondness to the wall, but nothing else happened. The drying sweat was making him chilly. He should get back to his quarters before someone came looking for him.

He started to turn back the way he’d come when a tiny circle of light glowed on the wall much further down the hallway in front of him. Frowning, he looked at it for a moment, until it started to fade. Just when he was about to shrug it off, the circle re-appeared, this time blinking slowly in and out.

Curious now, he walked toward it. As he approached, it faded completely, but another circle lit up further ahead. He hesitated, glancing at his watch. “I really should be getting back,” he said, uncertain why he spoke aloud or who he thought he was talking to. It was late—almost 0145. By the time he got back to his quarters and showered, it would leave just enough time for a catnap before he would have to get up and do whatever it was he was supposed to be doing in this city.

If you had your memories back, you’d know.

He pushed the thought away as unproductive. It wasn’t as if he was preventing his memories from returning. Aren’t you?

The circle blinked insistently.

With a barely repressed sigh, he moved forward. As though happy now, small circles lit up at shorter intervals, flashing until he came abreast of them and winking out as he passed. They led him down a short, straight corridor that ended at a closed door. When he stood in front of it, dozens of points of light began to bounce all over the surface, some sparkling like fireworks, others cascading down like some crazy alien game of Solitaire. The control panel for the door lit up like a Christmas tree, blinking lights trailing toward it from all directions.

“I got it,” John said. “Press here.” I really hope Carter doesn’t kill me.

He pressed the button. The door slid open soundlessly. The room was empty, long since abandoned, with shards of broken glass visible on the floor from the moonlight streaming in from a series of high, narrow windows near the ceiling. It crunched underfoot as he entered the room. The moonlight was silver and sharp-edged, coating the benches and lab tables with a cold sheen. Above, John could see the two moons through the windows, smaller now and mercilessly bright, unlike the dreamy glory they’d been earlier in the evening.

What am I doing here?

“That’s a good question.” The voice came from behind, and John spun, heart pounding in his chest at the surprise.

The woman who had spoken was beautiful. She was wearing some sort of pale green dress with a plunging halter-top, and a sheer, filmy layer underneath that left her shoulders bare. Washed out by the silvery light, her hair appeared to be a reddish brown and curled around her shoulders. It was too dark to make out her eye color; they looked nearly black. Around her neck, she wore a beaded necklace that supported a large medallion.

She wasn’t from Atlantis. John knew that.

“Hope you don’t think I’m being rude,” he drawled, wishing he’d let someone know where he was going. “I’ve got this little memory problem right now. So, you mind telling me who you are?”

She walked toward him. As she did so, he could see a faint glowy outline around her and part of his brain suggested Yoda. It probably kept him from backing up a step when she came to a halt in front of him, close enough that he could smell the scent of honeysuckle and hyacinth. He blinked and shook his head slightly. Those were scents from his childhood. She was playing him. He felt his lips tighten.

“I am not playing you, John.” She sounded sad. “I only want to be of some assistance. We shared all once. I know you. I know what you need.”

“Oh really.” Damn, he wished he had a weapon. He suspected it would be of little use, but it would make him feel better just the same.

“You weren’t so suspicious of me the first time we met,” the woman said, her smile wryly reminiscent. “It made Rodney very upset. He thought you should have been more cautious, that I was not what I said I was. At least he was right in that regard.”

To John’s relief, the woman in green moved away from him, trailing one finger in the dust on a countertop as she walked. She stopped to look up at the moons briefly before turning back to smile at him. “You wouldn’t listen because you knew there was a connection between us. And because you thought—how do your people say it? You thought Rodney was cock-blocking.”

John felt the burn move across his cheekbones. She came toward him again, stopping just in front of him. She reached out for his face, only to stop when he drew back slightly. “You do not remember, but when we shared all, we shared everything. You discovered I was Ascended and all that meant—and I learned of your deep regard for this city, and all of the people under your protection. And of your regard for Rodney in particular. Such odd rules your people have.”

“You’re the one telling me about odd rules? The way I hear it, you Ascended types have some pretty odd rules too. Why are you here?”

She let her hand fall to her side. “Because I am lonely. Because I like you. Because I understand the desire to protect my people at all cost, the same as you do. Take my hand, John, and I can return your memories to you in full. You will know why you left Earth, and why you have made your home in Atlantis, and why you both love and cannot love Rodney McKay.”

John shook his head and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He ignored the clamminess of his T-shirt; he no longer felt cold.

“You cannot fully perform your duties without your memories.” She frowned at him. “They have made you the person you are today. Without them, you will make the same mistakes you’ve made before.”

“Aren’t you going to get in trouble for even being here?” He had a vague memory of restrictions on her actions, a punishment, a penalty.

She smiled. “That is another way in which we are alike. I might have known you would resist my help and saved myself the risk of offering it. If you should change your mind, however, come here and call my name. You know me as Chaya.”

A memory flitted through his mind, of hostile alien ships that flew with the deadly intensity of angry hornets, just as fast and maneuverable too. And of Chaya, closing her hand and crushing them as though they were insects.

“Why?” he asked, unable to help himself. “Why don’t you simply destroy the Wraith?”

“It is not our way,” she said simply. The glow around her grew brighter. John had to raise a hand to shield his eyes. “However,” her voice continued to emanate from the glowing ball of light that she’d become, “you were nice to me. You fed me strawberries and that marvelous thing called chocolate. I think that deserves a return favor now and then.”

The light around her grew so bright that John had to close his eyes. When he opened them again, he was in his quarters, staring at the poster of the Man in Black.

“Okay, when I think about favors, I think more along the lines of space ships and really cool weapons,” John said aloud to the room. ”Just so you know.”

The room said nothing back.

****

Ronon leaned on his door chime at dawn—until John got up and let him in. Ronon had no pity on hearing that John had been up late, nor had the fact that John had already put in a late-night run made a difference with Ronon either. He expected John to run as usual. So run they did.

“You’re quiet,” Ronon said when they finally began the cool down.

“Rodney came to see me last night,” John said by way of explanation. “I had to tell him there was nothing between us, that it was his imagination.”

Ronon shot him a look that was distinctly curious. “If McKay thought so, do you think…?”

“No,” John snapped. “I don’t.” Which had pretty effectively ended the conversation.

John went by Carter’s office after breakfast. “I’m just trying to get feel for what I do around here,” he said, uncomfortably aware of a plaintive note in his voice. “Aside from being Ronon’s whipping boy.”

Carter’s smile had been short-lived. “Your memories aren’t coming back? Most of the other ATA carriers—the ones that woke before you did—have reported an almost complete recovery by now. You, Major Lorne, and McKay were the last to wake, and from what I hear, Lorne is recovering nicely. Rodney is… integrating well. How are you doing?”

He told her about his late night conversation with the woman named Chaya. He had to give Carter credit; she only raised her eyebrows. “Interesting,” Carter said. She got up from behind her desk and came around to sit on the edge in front of John. “Everything we know about Chaya indicates her intentions are not hostile toward us. Mind telling me why you rejected her offer?”

“I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t trying to manipulate me. Besides, I’m not a big fan of the easy fix, I guess.”

Carter smiled. “No, I would say not. Have you considered the possibility that maybe you’re deliberately refusing to allow your memories to recover?”

“They seem to keep coming back whether I want them to or not.” The sourness in his voice caught Carter’s attention and she cocked her head at him.

“We could arrange counseling, if you’d like.”

John made a face. “Can I have a little more time? I really don’t see how talking with someone is going to help me recover memories I can’t remember.”

Carter nodded. “Of course, you can have more time. You’re one of the strongest ATA carriers here in the city. The only person I know who’s stronger is Jack O’Neill. Maybe it’s just taking you a bit longer as a result. You’ll let me know if any other Ascended beings drop in for a visit, though, right?”

‘There’s more?” John tried not to sound dismayed.

Carter laughed. “Aside from Daniel Jackson, you seem to be one of their favorite people. They keep trying to co-opt you. However, I’m not done with you yet, John. We need you here in Atlantis.”

She dismissed him, but it was more like a friend giving leave than a superior officer. It was a weird feeling. It was nice too, knowing that he was needed. Wanted, even.

He discovered that he had an office and decided to make a visit. He almost did a bolt when he saw the backlog of folders in his inbox, but Lorne caught him as he was trying to leave.

“Ah, just the man I wanted to see, sir. I have a few things I need to go over with you.”

The ‘few things’ turned out to keep them occupied almost until lunchtime.

“So how are you doing, Lorne?” John asked when the stack of papers had noticeably thinned. He recognized that everything he’d signed off on was going to have to go through Carter for final approval first, and the resentment of this knowledge surprised him.

“I’d have to say I’m almost back to normal, sir.” Lorne said without fanfare. “Oh, sure, there are a few things that are still blanks for me, like the name of that guy who played the lead in Galaxy Quest, but nothing I can’t live without or relearn.”

Tim Allen, John thought, perversely pleased at knowing something Lorne did not. However, Lorne was definitely further ahead in the memory department than John. Maybe Carter was right. Maybe he was preventing his own recovery. Could his memories be that bad?

Yes.

He accepted his inner voice without question.

“Right then,” he said, as though everything was normal for himself as well. “Carry on.”

After dismissing Lorne, he wandered into the gym area instead of heading off to lunch. He had felt a strong need to stop by the commissary and select some food items to take to Rodney, but he’d ruthlessly shoved that idea aside in favor of a little workout. He ignored the voice that told him he didn’t need another workout.

When he located the gym, he found Ronon conducting a session in hand-to-hand combat with some of the Marines.

“Sheppard,” Ronon on spotting him. “You’re just in time. Come show them how it’s done.”

John twisted his mouth to one side, but shed his jacket and laid it on the bench just beside the door. “What are we doing here?”

Ronon’s grin was positively feral. “You try to take me down.”

John eyed Ronon cautiously as he moved out onto the training mat. Ronon was big, taller than most of the people on the room, and his arms were corded with muscle. John knew Ronon could run 5 K without breaking a sweat, without even looking winded. He knew from the mission reports that Ronon had spent seven years as a Runner, hunted by the Wraith for their own sport. The likelihood of his taking Ronon down was small. If Ronon got his hands on John, it was all over. Ronon would shake him the way a pit bull shakes a rat, and toss him to one side.

Stop thinking like that. Pretend he’s an intruder into your city.

He wasn’t sure where the thought had come from, but he stood in the center of the mat and watched Ronon circle him almost warily.

“I shouldn’t say this,” Ronon said as he moved around John, “but you look downright creepy when you make that face.”

“What face?” John asked, noting out of the corner of his eye that a small crowd was starting to gather. More than just the people who’d been working out in the gym when he’d arrived.

“You’re wearing the face of the Evil Sheppard. You know, the one that appeared in people’s dreams and killed them.”

That’s what happened to Heightmeyer. John started to push the isolated thought away, the way he’d been doing ever since he woke up in the infirmary, but changed his mind.

“Is this the face you saw in your dreams, Ronon?” He smiled.

Ronon looked briefly disconcerted before he frowned. “Okay, that’s freaking me out. Cut it out.”

“I don’t remember your dream, Ronon. Why don’t you tell me about it?” John’s voice was like black treacle: syrupy, strong, dark, and slightly bitter.

“You hit me with a shovel in the face and buried me alive.” Ronon’s face darkened at the memory. He moved suddenly, so swiftly that John was taken off guard and could not fully block the blow to his face. His ears rang with the impact and the metallic taste of blood was sharp in his mouth.

He licked his split lip slowly, still eyeing Ronon. John could tell he was getting to Ronon because Ronon didn’t have to do anything here, he could just wait for John to attack and deflect him every time. John blocked Ronon’s powerhouse swing, feeling the jar of it all the way up his arm and into his neck. He couldn’t take many more of these kinds of punches without going down, so he dropped to his hands and knees.

Ronon aimed a kick at him, but John caught his foot and twisted it. Ronon stumbled, temporarily off balance, but he didn’t go down. “Nice try,” he said as he pulled his boot out of John’s grip, tipping John off balance now.

Ronon’s follow up punch failed to connect because John rolled out of the way and shoved one of his legs in between Ronon’s so that he could bring the other up to bear, like a fulcrum, with Ronon’s leg in the middle.

The move only managed to bring Ronon down to one knee. A cheer broke loose from the crowd, however. Ronon threw another punch at him, and this time, John could not maneuver out of the way because Ronon had one of his legs pinned. John blocked the first strike, but the open-handed slap to the side of his head made him see stars.

It made him mad too.

He twisted upward and boxed Ronon’s ears, which made Ronon fall backward onto his rump. John pulled his leg out from under Ronon and kicked out at him, but Ronon caught him by the calf and simply rolled him across the mat. John was on his feet and going back for an attack while Ronon was still getting up—Ronon blocked his kick but when John suddenly shifted his weight to the other leg and brought his knee back in sharply, he managed to connect with Ronon’s nose. There was a disturbing crunching sound and the bright spatter of blood.

The watchers began to chant, “Shep! Shep! Shep!” John could see that Ronon was pissed now, and he knew he was in trouble. Ronon got to his feet and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, grimacing before he moved in on John’s position. They exchanged a series of blows and punches. John did his best to block them, but Ronon was tireless and they just kept coming. Each one that broke through John’s defenses felt as though it was permanently denting his body, but still he would not give up. Knowing he was almost out of steam, he hooked his foot around the back of Ronon’s knee and pulled. Ronon’s knee buckled, and he backhanded John.

Instead of avoiding the blow, John took it, latching on to Ronon with all his weight and pulling Ronon down to the floor with him. Ronon was on his knees now, all John had to do was push him over, but Ronon closed his big hands around John’s throat and John’s vision narrowed to a hazy circle. Baring his teeth, he reached up and grabbed some of Ronon’s dreads and pulled. The crowd was cheering them on—it was hard to say who was getting the most support now.

“What is going on here?” The woman’s voice, clear and disapproving, rang through the room like a church bell, causing the crowd to fall silent. “Ronon! Let him go!”

“He hasn’t given up yet.” Ronon did not let go of John’s throat, though he loosened his grip marginally. The edges of the room no longer wavered in shades of red and yellow. Ronon looked down on John with an odd mixture of anger and admiration.

“When have you known the Colonel to give up on a real fight?” Teyla stood arms akimbo, fists planted on her hips. Her disapproval radiated off every perfectly toned muscle in her body.

Ronon released John suddenly. “I always suspected you of pulling your punches when we worked out.”

John lay on his back with his knees drawn up and his feet planted on the floor. He let one hand flop over in a gesture of seeming nonchalance. “Well, you know. No point in getting tired or anything.”

Ronon laughed, then winced and scowled as he touched his nose gingerly. Giving John a glare, he took his nose between his fingers and crunched it back in place. Several of the observers visibly flinched. When Ronon reached out with the same bloody hand to help him up, John politely declined assistance. The crowd seemed to dissipate as quickly as it had formed. John couldn’t help notice that some money quickly changed hands as well.

“What were you two thinking?” Teyla said as John got stiffly to his feet. John shrugged.

Ronon grinned. “Best workout I’ve had in a while. I haven’t been pushed like that since the time you broke my collarbone, Teyla.”

John felt both eyebrows rise as he glanced over Teyla’s diminutive size. Sure, she looked tough, but she was tiny. He caught Teyla looking at him as though she could read his mind and he suddenly panicked. What if she can? She’s an alien too, you know.

“Come,” she said firmly. “We are going to the infirmary.”

“I don’t need to go to the infirmary,” Ronon said in a sulky tone.

“Your nose will heal better if it is taped. It is, however, up to you. The cut above John’s eye needs stitches, though.” Teyla and Ronon exchanged a long look, in which they seemed to carry on another conversation audible only to the two of them.

Ronon glanced over at John and said, “Sorry.”

“Likewise,” John replied.

“Men.” Teyla sounded exasperated, which John took as a good sign. Exasperation implied a measure of amusement and fondness which annoyed or irritated did not.

“You go on, I’ll catch up,” Ronon said as Teyla turned to leave. They briefly did another one of those silent exchanges. Teyla nodded.

“Colonel, if you would come with me?” She left the room as though it were a command and not an inquiry. John rolled his eyes at Ronon as he limped after her. “I saw that, John.” Teyla said, without looking around.

John shot Ronon a bug-eyed look and Ronon laughed.

In the corridor, Teyla waited for John to join her by her side before walking once more toward the infirmary. “Why are you so angry, John?”

“Me? I’m not angry.” He wished she’d slow down a bit. Every muscle in his body was going to hurt by tomorrow. He wondered if the city had a hot tub anywhere.

Teyla raised an eyebrow in his direction, her expression one of rank disbelief. “It is unlike you to engage Ronon fully during a sparring session. One would have thought you had really intended to fight him.”

“Maybe I just wanted to see what I could do. How well I could defend myself if needed. Before it came to the test, you know?”

Now it was Teyla’s turn for an eyeroll. “It is possible to do that in the course of a regular training session without resorting to the breaking of bones. Therefore, I ask you again, why are you so angry?”

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely way of speaking, Teyla?”

She smiled at him, tucking her chin, and looking out from under her eyebrows. If she’d been from Earth, she would have said, “Oh please, give me a break.” He suddenly had a vision of another woman with long brown hair looking at him like that, and the remembrance that at some point she’d stopped being amused by his charm and had become annoyed by it instead.

I married someone so I could prove to the world I wasn’t gay. The realization sank inside him as though it were a heavy stone he’d thrown into a pond, only to find out it was attached by a long chain to his feet.

“Is this about you and Rodney?” Teyla’s question came at his face like one of Ronon’s blows, unexpected and unblocked, stinging in its wake.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He all but shut the conversational door in her face.

She sighed. It was a small sound, but it twisted inside of him just the same. She was unhappy on his behalf, and like Ronon’s desire that he find personal happiness, it soothed a part of him that just wanted to be hugged. He shook that desire off angrily.

They were approaching the infirmary. A scientist coming out with a bandage over one hand gave John a surprised look in passing, opened her mouth as though to speak, caught Teyla’s eye and thought better of it. Teyla must have some kind of awesome power, he thought, smiling at the idea of Teyla as a superhero. She would be someone cool like Storm, with strong ties to the natural environment, and the ability to manipulate the weather, and psychic powers too.

He must have still been smiling as he thought of these things because Teyla was smiling back at him when she stopped him by the arm. “This is your home, John. We are your family. No one disapproves of you—we admire your courage, your determination, your honor. I know that you would give your life to save any one of us. You have put that devotion to your people to the test time and time again. That will not change because you decide to love Rodney.”

John glanced around sharply before speaking. “You mind keeping it down? Seriously, Teyla. One word and I could be discharged. I would lose everything. I’m pretty sure it’s not worth that.”

“Oh, John.” Teyla looked sad as she gently squeezed and released his arm. “Nothing else is worth more.” She walked away without another word.

****

“Oh good,” Jennifer Keller said when John brought his tray over to the table where she and the others were sitting later that evening. “I see Rodney has decided to join Dr. Brown for dinner. I was hoping he’d start to remember her soon.”

John glanced across the room in Rodney’s direction as he took his seat across from Keller. Rodney was speaking with a pretty redhead, who was looking up at with him with a smile as she led him toward her table on the other side of the room.

Just as well.

He hadn’t exactly been avoiding Rodney today, as much as making sure that he ignored any instinct that suggested he seek Rodney out. It was a little disconcerting to realize how often that had been.

Teyla glanced in Rodney’s direction as well, turning to look over her shoulder at the happy couple. Her mouth pursed briefly and she turned back to look calmly at John. He ignored her.

“Rodney and Dr. Brown were unable to maintain a relationship previously,” Teyla said, spearing a piece of fruit with her fork. John thought she was using more force than was strictly necessary. “Why do you think this time will be different?”

Keller shrugged. “He seemed very concerned about her when he brought her to the infirmary at the beginning of the outbreak.”

“You can care about someone without being in love with them.” Ronon tore off a big hunk of bread and dipped it into a dish of oil sitting in the center of the table. He folded the entire piece into his mouth and chewed. He sounded congested. His nose was taped and he had two impressive black eyes.

“I know that,” Keller said, frowning slightly. “They just looked sweet together, that’s all. I think McKay could use a girlfriend. Someone who sees that he eats his meals on time, and gets enough exercise. Someone he can vent to so that his blood pressure doesn’t go through the roof.”

“Someone to keep him out of your infirmary.”

Keller smiled sheepishly at Ronon. “You know what I mean.”

“John usually fulfills those duties.” Teyla spoke as though she were unconscious of how her words might sound. If John didn’t know better, he’d have thought her cultural differences prevented her from knowing this—but he had talked with her after sparring with Ronon—she did know better.

Everyone looked at John.

“Well, if we can get someone else to babysit McKay, that’s fine by me. I could catch up on my golf game.” He hoped the drawl didn’t sound too casual, as though he was trying too hard.

“Golf would be preferable to the other forms of exercise you’ve been doing lately.” Keller squinted across the table at him, trying to look stern. Instead, she looked like the president of the high school glee club and John had a hard time taking her seriously. “You’re recovering from a serious infection, Colonel. You were unconscious for nearly a day. I don’t really recommend turning a training session into a brutal cage match.” She gave Ronon a distinctly disapproving look.

“He could have quit any time he wanted.” Ronon shrugged. His plate contained large portions of meat that were rare to the point of bleeding. John wondered how he’d gotten his food cooked to order. John’s dinner was giving a good imitation of a hockey puck. In a few minutes, he was going to have to resort to taking out his boot knife and hacking at it. Maybe more ketchup would help.

“He would have been more likely to do so if he’d known what he was getting into.”

“He knew.” Ronon met John’s gaze from across the table.

“Still here,” John said mildly, waving his fork with a piece of meat on it.

“I’m just saying that golf is a more reasonable level of exercise for the Colonel right now.” Keller took a sip of her juice and spoke to John again. “How are you doing otherwise? Has your memory returned?”

“More or less,” John said. The lying came so easily to him that he wondered if he was a natural or if it was learned. He tore off a piece of his own bread and dipped it in the oil. It had some herbs mixed into that gave it a nice flavor. The bread was still warm too, with that kind of flaky crust that he liked so much. He concentrated on the bread and ignored everything else.

“Dr. Keller was speaking of the benefits of visualization for patients before you arrived, John. Could you elaborate, Jennifer? Some of the things you described sound very similar to Athosian meditation techniques for healing.”

John recognized that Teyla was changing the subject and was grateful for her perceptiveness even as he was annoyed with her apparent lack of it just moments before. So he looked after Rodney, so what? It was just one of those absent-minded professor things, John was sure. Rodney just needed a minder.

Keller’s words were soothing as she spoke of visualization techniques as a means of improving surgical outcomes. John let the words flow over him until Keller said something that made him sit up and take more notice.

“That’s bullshit,” he said, suddenly joining the conversation. “You can’t just wish something into existence with enough positive thinking.”

Teyla’s expression was questioning. Ronon’s was amused. Keller looked slightly offended. “Well, that isn’t exactly what I said, Colonel. There have been documented studies that show that we are more closely tied into our belief system than we realize—that our bodies produce hormones and peptides as chemical responses to the perception of our environment. Quantum physics would suggest that a belief about what is real and who we are is a matter of perception. Our brains can’t tell the difference between what it sees and what it remembers.” She paused and sighed, reaching out to tap the table between them.

“Think of it this way. Our brains are like cameras that record four hundred million bits of information at any given time—but our awareness can only keep up with two to three thousand. We’re constantly recreating our own realities around us all the time out of the bits of information we can process. Why do you think some people keep becoming involved in the same relationships, the same jobs? We’re so conditioned to think that the external is more important than the internal, but we are the ones creating the external all the time! We make choices based on this reality that determine the outcome of our lives. Reality we create out of our own ideas, concepts, and information. Until you look at something directly, you don’t know where it is in space and time—it can be in an infinite number of positions. Once you look at it directly, you limit it to the one place in time. That is the creation of your reality. We create our reality.”

John shook his head. “You’re trying to use the Heisenberg Principle to turn quantum mechanics into quantum mysticism.” He could only imagine what Rodney would have to say about that.

“I am not familiar with this principle, John.” Teyla dipped a much smaller piece of bread into the oil as she spoke. She brought it neatly to her mouth to eat it.

“Pretty much, it says that you can’t know the position, direction, and speed of something all at the same time.” He spoke to Teyla before turning back to Keller. “That’s a pretty big jump to take a basic principle of physics and grant it mystical powers.”

“You can’t argue with the power of the mind to overcome certain situations,” Keller said. “And visualization is a proven technique for athletes and others. I read an article once about a prisoner of war who spent the hours in his cell visualizing his golf swing—down to the very last detail. How it felt to grip the club, which muscles to engage when he swung it, how his body moved with the follow-through. He merely pictured it in his mind over and over again. He didn’t do the actual swing—there was no room in his cell. Yet, when he was released from captivity, his golf game had actually improved—despite not having played for years.” Keller delivered her statement with an air of authority that suggested her position was irrefutable.

“That is something our hunters do as well,” Teyla pointed out. “They will envision the hunt, the sighting of the target, the drawing back of the bow. They will picture the task a thousand times so that when they are faced with the prey, there is no hesitation—their bodies know what to do. It is the same with our fighters, too.”

“I did that,” Ronon said. “I used to lie awake at night and picture what I would do the next Wraith I saw. What I would do to Kell if I caught up with him.” He glared defiantly at Teyla for some unknown reason. The table was silent for a moment.

“That’s different.” John was emphatic. “That’s muscle memory and rehearsal. That’s not the same as ‘creating your reality.’” He made finger quotes. “That’s a pretty big stretch to take things into the realm of ‘I’m going to picture the outcome I want and it will happen.’”

“Do you not believe in the power of gratitude or prayer?” Teyla frowned slightly.

John sighed, leaning back in his seat. “That’s a tough one, Teyla.” What did he believe? He blew his breath out heavily. “I believe there’s something out there that’s bigger than me. I know there have been times when I’ve asked—even begged—for help from it. And I feel better for it. Does that mean I think that this force, for want of a better word, is going to help me find a better parking spot, or make a winning touchdown? No. And I think it’s insulting to use it that way.”

“You think you should only ask when it really counts.” Ronon’s look was knowing. He had a slight smile underneath hooded eyes. The look of a soldier who has seen all and lost more.

“Yeah.” John pushed his food around on his plate with his fork. “And I know sometimes the answer is going to be ‘no’.”

The table fell silent again.

“Two teams pray for victory in a football game.” John’s mouth tightened. “One team wins. Does that mean they were favored by God or that they had the better team, the better strategy? Come on, we’re talking football here. I know, the greatest game in the universe and all, but you’re telling me God really cares about the outcome of a game?”

“You’re discounting the power of belief here,” Keller said. “Maybe the winning team won because they saw no other outcome, because they believed that God was on their side. Confidence does carry a lot of weight, you know. You’re a prime example of that, Colonel.”

“Huh?” John blinked.

Keller laughed at his confusion. Teyla smiled as well. “If ever there was an example of thinking makes it so, that would have to be you, Colonel.” Keller smiled engagingly at him “I’ve never met anyone with such determination to master injuries that would fell a lesser man, or impossible situations that would have anyone else tossing their hands up in despair. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Ronon. You two are cut from the same cloth.” Keller shook her head sadly.

John cast a disbelieving glance in Ronon’s direction. With his blackened eyes and his taped nose, Ronon looked dangerous and unstoppable. John certainly didn’t feel that way.

“Look,” Keller hesitated before pressing on more firmly. “I’m not saying that if you just think positively that you can miraculously change events around you for the better. No, you’re not going to change the fact that the Wraith exist, or suddenly develop the ATA gene when you didn’t have it before. What I’m saying is that you do have the ability to change the outcome of certain things in your life by changing your attitude toward them. That’s all.”

“You just have to figure out which is which.” Ronon’s grin was both commiserating and teasing. Keller shot him a speculative look, which Ronon seemed to ignore.

“I find it interesting that in many ways, John, you are the same person that you were when all your memories were intact.” Teyla’s words surprised him—they seemed to come out of left field. “Many people have behaved differently during the time of their memory loss. You are essentially the same. I think that speaks highly as to the strength of your character.”

Teyla stared at him as though she were willing him to get some underlying message. “In fact,” she continued slowly, “the only real difference that I have seen is that you seem to have self doubt where none existed before. I am beginning to think you are a person that thrives on conflict—that your belief in yourself grows stronger when others doubt you.”

’s all an act. The words flashed into John’s mind and he knew the truth of them when he heard them. He didn’t really grow strong until Atlantis. Until the people here believed in him. A part of him wanted Teyla to know that, but it was impossible for him to speak the words.

“Um, thanks?” John said. “By the way, do you ever use any contractions? Because in all the time I’ve heard you speak, I haven’t noticed you using any at all.”

Teyla’s brow furrowed. Ronon and Keller laughed.

“I still say,” Keller said when her amusement died down, “that applied thought—a concentrated effort to project what you want in this lifetime—will draw those things to you.”

John couldn’t contain the eyeroll. He caught Ronon looking at him and raised a sardonic eyebrow. Ronon’s smile was conspiratorial, there and gone in a flash.

Keller noted it anyway. “No, seriously, guys. What could it hurt? Taking a few minutes each day to picture what you really want. How is that so wrong?”

Teyla frowned. “Picturing something you want but do not have puts you in the position of always wanting and not having. It implies you do not have, therefore you are re-enforcing the idea that you do not have it.”

Keller frowned, obviously trying to grasp Teyla’s logic. “Okay, I see what you mean, but where does that leave positive affirmations?”

Ronon glanced at John again, who had to fold his lips in an attempt not to guffaw out loud. Ronon wasn’t helping; his amusement was contagious.

Keller saw their exchange and put her hands on her hips. “Oh, come on, guys. There’s merit to this way of thinking and you know it.”

“Thinking about something important to you. Giving yourself a goal, something to reach for—yeah, there’s value in that.” Ronon was unexpectedly serious. “If it helps you to picture it in detail, or imagine yourself as someone else—someone who can’t be defeated, well, I’m okay with that too. That’s what heroes are all about. That can get you through tough times when nothing else can.”

John wondered who Ronon’s heroes were and whether he’d ever curled up, wounded and afraid, relying on the strength those heroes brought him to stay alive.

“But no amount of wishful thinking can change what is.” Ronon’s voice altered, growing harsh. “Some things just are.”

“I still say,” Keller continued bravely, “that daily, concentrated meditation can change your life. If you think you’re a loser, than you will subconsciously do things to re-enforce this perception. Whereas if you tell yourself that you are smart and successful often enough, you will be. You become what you think.”

“Only if you believe in what you’re telling yourself.” John shook his head. “Making changes for the better, that is. What do you do when you don’t believe in your ‘affirmations’?”

Keller looked frustrated. “I don’t know. Act with confidence until it’s real? I don’t know.” She sighed. “Take Rodney, for example, though. If he spent a few minutes every day putting the considerable power of his brain to good use in mediation…”

“No.” John balked at the very idea.

“Why not?” Keller frowned. “Just think, if all that energy was harnessed for Rodney’s own good—if he organized his thoughts and concentrated on what he wanted in a relationship, or on winning a Nobel prize, or solving the problem of the Replicators once and for all…” Keller trailed off with a slightly dreamy expression on her face.

“There’s nothing wrong with the way Rodney thinks,” John said sharply. “Trying to change how he thinks would not only be wrong, but potentially dangerous as well.”

“Dangerous?” Keller looked skeptical. “How could honing Rodney’s mental control possibly be considered dangerous?”

“Because he’s a natural at what he does. He doesn’t need to change. His brain works fine just the way it is now. You want to reprogram him when there’s no need. What if we need him to pull a rabbit out of his hat and he can’t because he’s learned that rabbits can’t possibly exist in hats and therefore he shouldn’t even look for them there?”

Keller bristled slightly. “By your argument, a natural pilot wouldn’t need flying lessons, when we all know that’s not true.”

“Apples and oranges,” John said. “Rodney’s already had his training. He’s gotten his degrees; he knows his shit. We’re not talking about the basics about how to fly a plane. We’re talking about how to read the sky and feel the engine and when to follow your gut when your head tells you it’s all wrong.”

“I believe I have to agree with the Colonel on this one,” Teyla said unexpectedly. She smiled at John when he looked at her in surprise. “I have spent a lot of time with Rodney recently, and I am frequently amazed by the workings of his mind. Though I myself have suggested mediation in the past for him, I now question whether it is wise to interfere with his thought processes. I believe he operates at a level different from the rest of us.”

The look Keller gave Teyla was one of utter disappointment—as though Teyla had let down her sex by taking John’s side.

“Wouldn’t it be far more likely that with training, Rodney would learn to concentrate his ability to make intuitive connections between one piece of knowledge and the next?” Keller seemed determined to prove her theoretical point.

John was no longer able to hide his irritation. “There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not broken. He doesn’t need to be fixed.”

“Who doesn’t need to be fixed?”

John snapped his head around to discover Rodney behind him, a slice of chocolate cake on his tray. John registered that Rodney had forgotten dessert again and realized that it was a pretense that he wasn’t going to eat it in the first place. John found the little foible incredibly endearing and he told himself sternly that This Wouldn’t Do.

“You don’t,” John said before he really thought about it, still pissed with Keller. “You’re fine just the way you are.”

He was unprepared for the way Rodney’s emotions lit his face, going off with a display as varied and impressive as a Fourth of July fireworks show. There was gratification as well as embarrassment, and shy pleasure as well as a touch of indignation. In the fading aftermath, however, there was quiet satisfaction, with a smidgen of hope.

John felt like a heel.

Rodney pulled out the chair next to John and sat down, placing his tray on the table without asking for or waiting for an invitation.

“I never doubted it,” Rodney said in a voice that suggested perhaps that he had. “Have you got a minute, Colonel? Because I want to tell you about some weirdness we’ve picked up on the long range sensors.”

****

Rodney could feel his heart racing in his chest as he led John along the corridor towards the transporter that would take them down to the main Science lab. The sound of John’s words echoed loudly through his head, the meter of them blending into the beating of his heart.

You’re fine just the way you are.

He’d missed most of the conversation, had arrived only in time to hear the last exchange and John’s quick defense, but something about John’s response resounded deeply within in him, stirring the last of his as yet unrecovered memories. Rodney knew he was difficult to work with – even without his memory and before Radek’s comments, he’d picked up on the distance that many people had kept from him. He was still getting used to the surprised looks he was given when he asked a question or complimented someone’s work. And, if he was being honest, he was also very aware of just how hard it was to pay people compliments – to even notice that they had done something praise-worthy when it was something he could do in half the time. Still, he was trying and his staff, Radek included, seemed to be very grateful for his efforts, even if he did still manage to forget the names of most of the people in his department more often than not.

He could feel the last of his lost memories slowly amassing on the very edges of his consciousness, could feel their weight pressing in on him and somehow knew that his confusion would be resolved when he could remember everything about his life. His factual knowledge was already there, as was his understanding of Atlantis and her systems, thanks to the last few hours spent with Radek in the lab. There were even bits and pieces of his personal life that were slowly slotting into place – flashes of huge lecture theaters full of students, an image of a young blonde girl with eyes like his who had grown up to have a husband and a family, but there was precious little of anything truly personal – nothing of a relationship he had thought he’d found with John. Maybe because there was nothing there to be discovered – the thought depressed him with just how true it sounded.

After John’s rejection, he’d taken Katie to dinner, determined to find some kind of connection with her as she was, supposedly, the person he had loved before. But there had been nothing, not the slightest spark of either memory or connection – a stark contrast to the feelings flooding through Rodney when he walked across the room to John to hear John defend him so strongly.

But if you’re fine just the way you are, why doesn’t he want you?

The thought snuck through unbidden and Rodney found that he couldn’t dismiss it. It seemed to resonate with his growing pile of memories, bringing to the forefront of his mind flashes of a lonely childhood, an isolated adolescence, and a bitter and angry adulthood.

“So, what weirdness have you discovered?”

John’s voice cut through Rodney’s increasingly depressive thoughts and Rodney grasped hold of it like a life line. As he turned to look over at John and respond to his question, Rodney found himself captivated by John’s profile – the unruly tufts of his hair, the endearing little point at the tip on his ear, the easy grace with which he moved, the neatly stitched cut above his eye.

“What happened to you?” he asked, a sharp spike of worrying lancing through him at the thought of John being injured.

A wry smile quirked the corner of John’s mouth. “Ah, nothing really,” he said. “I was just doing some training with Ronon.”

“Oh,” Rodney said, shuddering at the thought before frowning at John in consternation. “Whatever made you do a stupid thing like that? I mean, he’s twice your size and half your age.”

“Hey!” John complained. “I gave as good as I got.”

Rodney snorted at that. “I’m sure you did,” he said. “Just maybe give the training a break for a while – I’m pretty sure getting your head pummeled for fun is not the recommended treatment regimen for amnesia.”

“You were telling me about weird readings,” John said, turning to look at Rodney and raising his unhurt eyebrow in inquiry.

“Oh, yes,” Rodney said as they reached the transporter, realizing that he’d never answered John’s original question. “The sensor readings.”

Weird sensor readings,” John said as he swiped his hand over the transporter’s console and ushered Rodney inside.

“Yes, weird,” Rodney repeated, shaking his head to get himself back in the game as John selected the Science lab as their destination. “Very weird. You see, I’ve been working on a new program for the long-range sensors – one that has a much more accurate solver for doing the approximations we make to analyze readings taken at such distances.”

John nodded at this and Rodney suddenly recalled the fact that John was a lot smarter than he often liked to portray himself to be.

I took the test. I never joined.

“And?” John prompted as they left the transporter and walked towards the doors of the lab.

“Let me show you,” Rodney replied, upping his pace so that he was slightly ahead of John as they entered the lab.

To Rodney’s surprise, there was fairly large crowd of scientists in the lab, all gathered around the computer terminal on which the analysis program was running.

“What are you all still doing here?” Rodney asked with a frown, waving a hand at a number of people he didn’t recognize. “Don’t you have your own projects to be getting on with?”

As the crowd started to disperse, the scientists muttering amongst themselves, Rodney turned back to John and waved him forward before turning toward the terminal itself. Lines of code were still scrolling over the screen, but Rodney could tell that the program had almost finished its analysis. “Come take a look at this.”

As John made his way to Rodney’s side, the crowd thinned yet further, leaving only Radek, Danvers, and Cheung clustered around the terminal.

“Hey, where do you think you’re going? Rodney asked suddenly, reaching out a hand to snag Philips as she started to move passed him, presumably heading back to her desk.

“Uh, nowhere?” she said, darting a quick glance towards John which then turned into a longer stare before she looked back at Rodney.

Rolling his eyes at John’s ability to attract female attention just by breathing, Rodney snapped a finger. “Right answer,” he said to Philips before turning to look at John. “It’s thanks to Philips here that we first realized we might have a problem.”

“Just what kind of problem are we talking about?” John asked. “Rodney, you started talking about weird readings and now suddenly there’s a problem.”

“Well, we’re not yet certain, Colonel,” Radek replied in Rodney’s stead as Rodney sank into a chair and became engrossed in the output window that had just popped up on the screen. “But we have been picking up some odd signals on our long range scans over the past week. From their pattern, it is possible that they are not a natural phenomenon.”

As Rodney ran his eyes over the results, noting that the periodic pattern and frequency variations Philips had first noticed were still there, he felt his heart sink. In addition to the transmission itself, the output indicated that the program had uncovered dozens of instances when the transmissions had coincided with a small but definite boost in Atlantis’ code base. “Well, we now know for sure,” he said, sitting back in his chair and tapping the screen. “The transmission is definitely not natural and we’re being exposed to some sort of alien code transfer.”

“So what exactly are you saying?” John asked as Radek and Philips leaned in closer to study the output. “That we’re under some kind of attack?”

Rodney shrugged, momentarily at a loss. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Maybe. Someone is transmitting a large amount of cross-frequency data in our direction that is somehow accessing our internal systems.” He turned back to the screen, reaching out to the keyboard so that he could scroll down the results, watching as the frequency pattern of the transmission ebbed and flowed. “Look at this,” he said, pointing out the broad range of harmonics. “There’s a hell of a lot of data encoded in this.”

Rodney was vaguely aware of Philips stepping away for a moment as he and Radek continued to pour over the readings. She returned moments later carrying a laptop, which she placed beside the terminal, flipped open and proceeded to pull out a detailed star chart of the sector.

“See here, Colonel,” she said pointing at the screen. “This is the sector of space Lantea inhabits - this is our system here, and here are the closest of our neighboring star systems. Lantea is the only planet anywhere in this vicinity with either a Stargate or a technologically-advanced population.”

“You’re saying that whatever this transmission is,” John said, gesturing towards the terminal. “It’s directed at us.”

“Exactly,” Rodney said, taking over the explanation. “And whoever is sending it has gone to great lengths to conceal its presence.” He reached out for Philips’s laptop, pulling up the close-range sensor readings, and then tapping the screen vigorously when the readings confirmed his suspicions. “See here – there’s no sign of the transmission at all on the short range sensors. The data being transmitted not only contains instructions for its primary purpose, but also a sophisticated program enabling it to cloak its presence from us almost entirely.”

Rodney heard John let out a long breath of air behind him and turned to find John’s gaze fixed steadily on him.

“And what is its primary purpose?” he asked, his tone grim.

At this, Rodney had to shake his head. “I don’t know yet,” he said as he turned back to the terminal. “I mean, I can see there are various different bits of information being encoded here,” he continued, tapping out a few of the distinct harmonics as he spoke. “And I imagine one of these is the ability to cloak the transmission and its code from our short-range sensors.”

“Internal sensors too, no doubt,” Radek put in.

“No doubt,” Rodney agreed morosely, fingers flying over the keys to pull up the internal systems and, unsurprisingly, again finding no trace of the newly added code. “But finding out what exactly it’s supposed to do…” he trailed off at that point, his mind racing through various possibilities, each one vastly time consuming and more than likely a dead-end. “I don’t know,” he said finally, shrugging in near defeat as he was unable to think of any other way of isolating whatever malware had been uploaded into their systems other than to go through each line of code by hand – a task that would certainly take far more time than they had. “The only thing we can be sure of – whatever it is, it will be no good for us.”

John nodded, his gaze resting on Rodney for a few beats, the weight of it oddly comforting despite the percipient crisis. “You’ll figure it out, Rodney,” he said at last, his tone firm. “And in the meantime, we need to take this to Carter.”

****

While John radioed ahead to set up the meeting, Rodney worked somewhat frantically on transferring the sensor analysis program from the Science department’s server onto Atlantis’ mainframe. As he worked, he shouted out orders to Radek and the other scientists, getting them to pull up the program’s findings on their pads and creating graphical representations of the transmissions harmonics – something visual was always easier for non-experts to follow, Rodney recalled. On the quick trip up to the briefing room, Rodney’s mind was spinning as he continued to ponder and then dismiss possible solutions. He knew the main problem was going to be isolating and then neutralizing the alien code. The questions of who was attacking them and why were, from his point of view, secondary to stopping the attack. But, despite John’s certainty that he would find an answer, Rodney was plagued by doubts.

Once they reached the conference room, Rodney was momentarily surprised to find Teyla, Ronon, and Evan were all there as well. However, he couldn’t deny the feeling of relief that spread through him at their presence – something within him telling him that they were stronger as a team. Suddenly, as if to confirm this feeling, several more memories slotted into place, all of which involved SGA-1 facing countless challenges together and overcoming them. All at once, the panic that had been spinning Rodney’s thoughts subsided and he found himself able to think clearly once more. There had to be a way through this and, bolstered by his team and John’s vocal support, Rodney knew that together they would find it.

Rodney quickly brought Colonel Carter – or Sam as his mind now insisted he called her - up to speed, pleased to find that she grasped the seriousness of the situation at once. He felt a small thrill go through him as she scrolled through his code, nodding in satisfaction and saying that it was a brilliant piece of work. With his continually returning memory, he knew now how important it was to him that she recognize both his ability and his work. He knew he had debt to repay and, even though he may have done his time in Siberia, that he still felt a not insignificant amount of guilt for having delivered Teal’c a too hasty death sentence. Thank god, Sam had refused to accept his answer at the time.

“Well, although I don’t recognize this particular code or delivery style either,” Sam was saying, her voice pulling Rodney back to the meeting. “It does seem most likely that it comes from the Replicators.”

“I have never heard of such an attack by the Wraith,” Teyla said, Ronon grunting in agreement at her side.

“But who is doing the attacking isn’t the real question,” Rodney felt compelled to say. “What we should be worried about first of all is what the code is doing and how we stop it.”

“Rodney’s right,” John said, nodding in his direction before looking back to Sam. “We work out where this thing has gone and stop it, then we can worry about our response.”

“I agree,” Sam said. “But isolating the code, especially given the size of the Atlantis network and the fact that, as Rodney has pointed out, the transmission includes cloaking software, is not going to be easy.”

“Maybe impossible,” Radek said. “Too many places for it to hide.”

“And far too many systems that it could be targeting,” Sam said, nodding in agreement. She glanced over at Philips, nodding in her direction as she spoke again. “And, as Dr. Philips has discovered, our network has been under the influence of these transmissions for over four days now. Even with the periodic nature, that’s more than enough time for several different code sets to have been delivered.”

“So what do we do about it?” John asked, his need to actively protect his city clear in his voice.

“Well, we certainly can’t go through the entire network code line by line,” Sam said. “The amount of time that would require makes it impossible. So, we’re going to need a different approach. Any ideas?” she asked, looking around the table.

“Replicator technology is based on mimicry,” Danvers said thoughtfully, glancing between Sam and Rodney as she spoke. “Both their hardware and software works on the principles of mimicking what’s around them and adapting so that they can complete their task encountering minimal resistance.”

“Yes, right,” Rodney said, his thoughts whirring around this fact. There was something important here, he just knew it, he just couldn’t see what it was quite yet.

“I thought you said who was behind the attack didn’t matter,” Evan put in, looking confused.

“No, but it might give us a clue as to where to look for the malware the transmission is delivering into our network,” Sam replied to him before turning towards Danvers. “What are you thinking?”

Danvers shook her head. “Nothing specific,” she replied, looking faintly embarrassed to have spoken. “Only that it’s likely that the malware will look like our own code, making it even more difficult for us to distinguish it.”

Rodney stayed quiet as the conversation continued around him – various ideas being suggested and then discarded by the assembled team. For some reason, his mind refused to let go of the possibility that the malicious code was mimicking Lantean code. He turned this fact over and over in his mind, examining it from all angles and trying to figure out what about it seemed to be so important.

“Rodney?” a low voice interrupted his thoughts. “You all right?”

Rodney turned to find John leaning towards him, their shoulders brushing together slightly as they sat side by side. John’s gaze was open and interested, his words pitched low enough that no one else could overhear them.

Rodney nodded slowly, his thoughts calming somewhat as he became caught by the concern he could see in John’s eyes. “Yes,” he replied just as softly. “Just thinking.”

Suddenly, the lights flickered and then the room went dark for a long moment. Both the overhead lights and, perhaps even more worryingly, all the computer consoles went blank. Then, just as quickly, everything sprung back to life. Rodney was on his feet in an instant, grabbing his laptop and rushing over to the wall terminal, which would hook him directly into Atlantis’ network. As he checked through the various systems, he was aware of John and Sam looking over his shoulder.

“The sensor grid looks clear,” he heard Radek say from somewhere behind him. “And the Gate system is not registering any interruption in flow.”

“No sign of anything wrong on the mainframe either,” Rodney replied. “It’s as if the power cut never happened.”

“It’s got to be the malware,” Sam said. “Its tracks are hidden, but it can’t just be coincidence.”

“If your program had not picked up on the hidden transmission,” Teyla said to Rodney with a small smile, “we would never have recognized the potential significance of the power interruption.”

“That’s right,” Rodney said, recognizing a feeling of relief as he realized that Teyla was obviously still speaking to him after his earlier outburst in the commissary. “We would have just thought it a random power fluctuation and moved on.”

“Is this the first stage in an all-out attack?” Evan asked. “Slowly drain our power away just in time for a Replicator armada to come in and take us out completely?”

Rodney shook his head. “No,” he answered firmly. “I mean, why would they bother with a physical attack when a virtual one will do the job just as well? If we’d never detected their transmission in the first place – and, let’s face it, it’s only coincidence that we did – then we would have no clue even now that anything was wrong.”

“I agree,” Sam said. “We have very little defense from this kind of attack, especially because it isn’t something that the Ancients ever came across thanks to the directives the Ancients built into the Replicator base code. As a result, none of Atlantis’ systems has any kind of protection against this kind of infiltration.”

“Especially if the infiltrated code looks like our own,” Danvers added.

Rodney frowned – there it was again, the assumption that the code would look like their own. It made sense, especially if the attackers were the Replicators.

He forced himself to take a moment to review what they knew, trying to understand his own instincts as well as the facts of the situation. The fact that none of their internal security systems had picked up on the data transfer was worrying, but the chaos caused by the Kirsan fever would have made it practically impossible for them to respond to such a threat even if they had been aware of it at the time. As it was, it was already too late to stop the transmission – with four days of periodic exposure, no doubt the bulk, if not all, of the malware had already infiltrated Atlantis. And, if the flickering lights were any indication, their primary systems were already infected so time had become a real issue.

“But why only the momentary blip?” Cheung asked, speaking for the first time. “If the malware had the ability to knock out main power, why not simply take out the entire network and destroy the City that way? After all, there’s no shortage of ways to accomplish that if they’ve got that kind of control of the grid – it runs life support, the defense grid, the Stargate; pretty much all of our major systems.”

He had a point: Rodney could see everyone around the table taking it in.

“Maybe they don’t want to destroy Atlantis,” Ronon said at last into the silence. “Maybe they’ve got another plan.”

Sam was nodding at this before Ronon had even finished speaking. “That does sound plausible,” she said. “That this is just one step in whatever the final goal of the transmission may be.” She counted out the stages on her fingers as she spoke. “First, the software is uploaded, second it hides all traces of itself and all subsequent transmission, third it infiltrates the power grid and then…” she shrugged, her hands splaying wide as she trailed off, her gaze sweeping around the table. “Who knows?”

“Okay,” Rodney said, picking up the theme. “So if the first step – or, at least, one of the earlier steps – of the process is to erase all traces of itself, hide itself in our own code and access our main power grid, what could the final steps be?” He pointed a finger towards Cheung. “You’re right about their access – even a short power drop like the one we experienced, if planned, would require access to our main grid.” He gestured towards his laptop as he finished the point. “Access that we cannot detect, but which we have to assume has happened. So, the next question has to be this: what does access to our grid not give it?”

The question was meant to be targeted at the group as a whole, but Rodney was looking at John directly as he posed it. Because he was absolutely certain – through whatever messed up relationship the two of them did actually have – that John was the one who had the answer.

And, as Rodney expected, John replied immediately. “Atlantis,” he said, his tone soft despite the dawning realization that it wasn’t just them the Replicators were after, but the entire city.

“Exactly,” Rodney replied, his gaze holding John’s for a long moment as he drew strength from John before turning to look at Sam. “They don’t want the power grid or the Stargate or even to destroy us – that’s not what this is about. No, what they’re after is Atlantis’ AI.”

“But why would the Replicators want Atlantis’ AI? Their own AI is highly sophisticated and, given that their creators were the Ancients, surely not all that dissimilar to that of the city,” Sam argued.

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong,” Rodney replied, a feeling of absolute certainty flooding through him as he ran through the possibilities in his mind. “The Ancients may have designed the Replicators, but I’ve seen their base code – read it and written it – and it’s not the same at all.”

Sam nodded at this, accepting Rodney’s greater experience with the Replicators of Pegasus. “Okay. That would make sense, I suppose,” she said. “Given that they’ve had thousands of years to evolve since the Ancients abandoned them on Asuras.”

“So, what would they need with Atlantis’ AI?” came Teyla’s voice from across the table. “There must be something about it that is special.”

Rodney glanced in her direction for a moment, acknowledging her question, before turning once again to look at John. “There is,” he said, a grin starting to spread across his face as he realized he now knew not only what the malware was doing, but also how to stop it. He reached out and wrapped his hand around John’s wrist, trying to ignore the flood of heat that swept through him at the contact. “Come on,” he said, rising to his feet and pulling John up beside him. “We need to go to the Chair Room.”

****

The lights flickered once more in the corridor as they made their way en masse down to the lower levels of the city. Rodney and John led the way, Rodney’s pace picking up a tad at the power fluctuation, the very fact it had happened merely serving to underline the fact that he had to get this right. He’d let go of his grip on John as soon as it was obvious that John would follow him, but he was also grateful that John had remained close at his side. His presence, although silent, buoyed Rodney enormously, a steadying warmth pulsing through him whenever their shoulders brushed against one another as they walked.

“You see,” Rodney explained, “the specificity of Ancient technology, and Atlantis’ AI in particular, is what makes it unique.”

“Ah, of course,” Sam said from her place just behind him, understanding dawning in her tone. “The ATA gene.”

“Exactly,” Rodney said. “You see, anyone can use most of the integrated technology in the City – the transporters, computer terminals, environmental and lighting controls, things like that. The more sophisticated technology, by contrast, can only be used by ATA gene carriers – the jumpers being the prime example. However, the most advanced piece of Ancient technology is even more specific than that.”

“The Chair,” John said, his tone tightly controlled, as if he was battling against his memory loss to access the answer. “Only I can use the Chair.”

Rodney nodded, casting a quick glance in John’s direction as he did so. John’s eyes were blank of all emotion, his jaw tense and his hands tightly fisted at his sides. Rodney felt a chill shiver down his spine – this was John in full fighter mode: cold, calculating and practically unstoppable. The problem was, Rodney wasn’t at all sure what John was fighting for. That he would fight for Atlantis was a given, whether he was prepared to tackle his own mind, which is what Rodney suspected would be necessary, was another matter entirely.

“Right,” Rodney said after a moment, deciding that the best course of action was to simply power through with his explanation and suggested solution and wait and see what John, and everyone else, would make of it. “Only very specific people – strong gene carriers like you and Jack O’Neill, have the ability to interact directly with Ancient AIs through the Control Chairs.”

They had reached the transporter now, Rodney and John squeezing into the small space along with Sam, Teyla, and Ronon. As the doors slid closed and they descended to the Chair Room, Rodney continued outlining his plan.

“You see, I suspect that the genetic element of the Ancient’s technology was initially driven primarily by their need to stay ahead of the Wraith,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at Sam again, seeking her agreement.

“Yes,” she said readily. “It’s clear that the Wraith’s integration of the biological with the technological gave them a big advantage over standard technology alone.”

Rodney grinned at her easy acceptance – appreciating Sam’s intelligence more than he ever had before; now that his time without his memory allowed him to see her as an ally rather than a potential threat. “So,” he continued, picking up the thread again, “the Ancients developed their own fusion. This prevented anyone else using their technology, but also led to the discovery that the mental link between a gene carrier and their AI allowed for a much more powerful and complex range of outputs.”

“Like the drones,” Ronon said. “The fire power they offer is beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“Yes,” Rodney replied. “And like the ability to fly the city – the piloting of something so large and unwieldy, combined with the thousands of calculations, adjustments and inferences needed, is something only the most sophisticated of computers could control: it’s something only a brain could do.”

As the transporter doors slid open to deliver them in the corridor just outside the Chair Room, Rodney glanced over at John again. “So, you see,” he said, gesturing for John to go ahead of him. “This then gives us both the explanation for the malware attack and solution to it: the Chair and, through it, the intricate software which connects the city’s artificial intelligence to a human’s biological intelligence.”

He heard John give soft intake of breath and looked over to find him standing a few meters from the Control Chair itself, simply staring at it. His expression was still carefully blank, but there was a spark of emotion in his eyes that told Rodney that there was definitely something going on beneath the surface.

Rodney approached John slowly, uncaring for the moment that he was leaving the others behind with his explanation only half done.

“John,” he said softly, wanting to reach out to him again, but unwilling to risk something so personal in public, especially given the restrictions due to John’s military career.

“I’m going to have to use it, aren’t I?” John said, eyes still firmly fixed on the Chair.

“Yes,” Rodney replied. “It’s the only way we have any chance of identifying and stopping the malicious software. Even if it has mimicked our own and fully integrated itself with our code base, your link with Atlantis’ AI should, in theory, be sensitive enough to detect and neutralize the malware.”

“In theory?” John echoed.

“Well,” Rodney replied with a shrug. “It’s not like we’ve ever tried anything like this before, but it’s a sound hypothesis.”

“Before,” John said. “You remember everything now, don’t you?” he asked, finally turning to look at Rodney.

“Yes,” Rodney admitted, feeling guilt twist low in his stomach as he realized the tricky situation he’d unwittingly put John in with his misplaced feelings. “And I’m… well, I guess I’m sorry about earlier. I made some assumptions that I shouldn’t have and-”

“Rodney,” John interrupted his awkward apology sharply. “It’s not really the right time for that now.”

“Ah, no,” Rodney conceded with a quick backward glance at the others, relieved to see that Sam was deep in discussions with Radek and the other scientists who had obviously just arrived. That only left Teyla and Ronon who were standing well back, but nevertheless observing them closely. “Sorry.”

“So, the Chair,” John said, a little louder this time, his voice attracting everyone’s attention. “You think I can use the Chair to stop this?”

“It’s a good idea,” Sam said to Rodney before looking over at John. “You feeling up to it, Colonel?”

John raised an eyebrow at the question. “Not sure I have much of a choice,” he replied, his carefree façade once more very clearly in place. “But, as I still don’t remember ever using the Chair before, I’m not sure how much good it’ll do.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” Rodney said, urging John forward with a few flicks of his hands. “You had no idea what you were doing the first time you sat in the Chair either and yet you still managed to access more of the Ancient outpost’s database than Carson could after a week.”

As John settled himself into the Chair, Rodney turned to Radek who had been busy connecting his laptop up to the room’s server access.

“Are we ready?” he asked.

Radek shrugged. “I am not entirely certain what we expect to see given that we’ve yet to see anything, but…” he shrugged again, gesturing towards the screen. “I think this is the best we can do, yes?”

Rodney leant over to assess what Radek had done, noting that he had brought up status views of Atlantis’ power grid as well as internal and external sensors. “That’ll have to do,” he said, nodding as he pulled back. “Keep an eye out for any changes.”

Rodney made his way back over to John then, who was still sitting on the very edge of the Chair with the bare minimum of his body making contact with it.

“You’ll have to sit back properly for this to work,” he informed John. “The AI will then be able to patch into your mind and you can direct it to isolate any non-native code lines and destroy them.”

John cast Rodney a skeptical look before asking, “Do I want the AI in my mind?”

“Yes,” Rodney replied at once. “Like I said, this is our only chance to save Atlantis.”

And that was, just as Rodney had expected, enough for John. He sat back in the Chair at once and Rodney watched in awe as the entire room lit up as soon as John’s head made contact with the back panel, the full power of Atlantis coming to life at the touch of his mind.

“Uh, I’m not exactly sure what I should be doing,” John said, but his closed eyes and the slight furrow of concentration between his brows belied that statement. As did the soft pulsing of light and power that Rodney could feel taking place throughout the room and, most likely, the entire city.

“Just use your instincts,” Rodney said. “You do know how to do this – you’ve done it before and you have a natural affinity for it. Just think about-”

“Where we are in the galaxy?” John interrupted him to finish, a small grin pulling at his mouth as he lifted his head from the Chair’s back panel to look directly at Rodney.

Rodney couldn’t help but grin back. “You remember?” he asked.

John shrugged. “Some,” he prevaricated, his previously open expression snapping closed again.

“Well then,” Rodney replied, getting back to business. “Yes – of course, don’t think where we are in the galaxy, but do think,” he waved a hand to encompass both John and the chair, “about what you want to find out.”

“Where the malware code is and how to destroy it,” John said, his tone decisive as he finally settled back in to the Chair and closed his eyes again.

This time, whatever John was doing seemed to be working. The pulses of light became stronger and faster as the Chair tilted back, the back panel illuminating to halo John’s head. As Rodney watched, the expression on John’s face changed slowly, morphing over long minutes from one of intense concentration to one of almost peaceful acceptance. It was as if he had to wage some internal mental battle in order to connect with Atlantis’ AI and sweep the city’s network. Well, Rodney conceded silently to himself, for all he knew that was precisely what John had to do. With his memories still not entirely accessible to him, perhaps his innate connection with Atlantis was not as easy to access either. Still, battle or no, Rodney knew that John would persevere until he had succeeded.

****

The earthy smells of sawdust, manure, and hay made him open his eyes. He was startled to find himself standing in the aisleway of a barn—and not just any barn, but the stable on his dad’s property when he’d been just a kid. It had been a long time since he’d been in a barn—the picket lines that passed for stabling in Afghanistan didn’t count.

Bemused, he walked down the aisle toward the wide open doors at the end. Somewhere nearby, a radio was playing country music; John couldn’t ever recall being in a barn when there wasn’t some sort of country singer crooning in the background. As he listened, he could make out the words to The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia and recognized it as the original Vickie Lawrence version. Somewhere ahead of him, he could hear someone singing along over the sound of running water.

He kept walking until he reached the wash stall at the end of the aisle. He came to a halt and stared as he watched a woman with a short, dark bob spray water over a bay stallion standing in the crossties. She was wearing a red polo shirt and tan britches, and a pair of green Wellingtons. As she sang with the radio, she wet the horse down with the hose in one hand and soaped him up with the other. The sunlight coming in through the door caught the spray as it arched over the horse, and John saw the small rainbow effect in the prism of light it created. Wet, the bay gleamed like polished mahogany. He leaned his neck into the soapy sponge as the woman scrubbed, and she broke off her singing to laugh at him.

“There you are,” she said brightly, taking notice of John standing there. “I’ve been waiting for you. Are you ready to ride?” She washed off the soap that she’d just applied, and stood back, one arm protecting her face when the horse shook like a big dog.

“You’re not my mother.” John’s voice was hard. He almost didn’t recognize it. His anger was alive, coiled in his belly, waiting for the command to be released like a werewolf at the sight of the full moon.

“Now, John,” the woman said, in a manner so eerily like his mother that doubt began to creep in. “Remember what I said about playing nice with others? You don’t want to get me in trouble, do you?”

Chaya. He quickly clamped down on the thought as soon as it flashed into his mind.

“What do you want?” The anger banked down, ready to return at the slightest encouragement, however.

His ‘mother’ gave him an approving smile. She turned off the hose and gave the horse a pat on its slick shoulder. She wound the hose back on the rack and wiped her hands on her britches. A dark curl dropped down on her forehead, and she pushed it back absently.

The hair and the little gesture were so appallingly familiar that John wanted to cry. It choked him now and he wondered if this was payback for the twelve year old that he’d been who had never shed a tear at her death.

“What do you want?” he asked again, quieter now.

“More like what do you want, dear?” Her voice was gentle. “Everything you need to know is here. But you have to want it. Surely you want to remember me?” She sounded a little bit sad and John thought it might just kill him.

“Of course I want to remember you,” he said carefully, as though the words might break him if he spoke too fast. “I want to remember you the way you are now. Here, in the barn. Where you were happy.” When you were healthy.

“Silly,” she said with a wide smile, the one that made her look dorky. The one his father had made fun of, so she tried to modify it, resorting to tight little half smiles that appealed to his sense of decorum. “I am always here. You can always come see me here—like I am right now.”

The image of hospital beds and the associated smells and sounds intruded—the beeping of a monitor, the decay of illness. The odor of disinfectant burned in his nostrils, and he could hear the sound of someone moaning in pain.

He looked at his mother standing whole and healthy in front of him right now and then he suddenly got it. Enlightenment slammed into him like a sledgehammer and he knew with completely clarity why his father had so often been absent from the house and hospital, why he’d left John to sit with his mother alone.

Patrick Sheppard couldn’t bear to watch his wife die.

This knowledge deflated years of anger with a single pinprick of certainty. It was still wrong of his father and John wasn’t at the point of forgiving him, but it was understandable, and that was a start.

“Yeah,” John mumbled, head down. “I can always find you here.”

A breeze blew down the causeway, stirring up sawdust and making John’s eyes water. That was his excuse anyway. When he blinked and looked up, his mother was gone.

“Step back, Hotshot.” Jim Banks was replacing the sweat scraper with which he’d flicked most of the water off the stallion. He unhooked the ties from the halter and clipped the lead rope into place, leading the horse out of the wash rack. The stallion arched his neck and pranced down the aisle, showing off for the other horses, which came to the front of their stalls to watch him pass. Jim corrected him with a sharp tug on the lead shank, and the stallion settled, content to float along with grace and power.

John followed Jim down the aisle and watched as he put the stallion in its stall and took the halter off over his head. Jim came out of the stall and latched it behind him. He hung the leather halter and shank on the hook outside the door. The nameplate on the stall read “Ruthless.” John remembered the stallion from when he was a child. He used to sneak it carrots when no one was looking. Ruthless had been aptly named and had been a handful for most people, but he’d loved John and had been very gentle with him. Looking back now, John didn’t know if he had been fearless or just plain stupid when it had come to the big stallion, but the love had been mutual.

“So, Hotshot.” Jim turned an assessing eye on him and John felt as though he was twelve again, and in trouble for riding one of his father’s prized event horses. “There some reason you don’t want to remember me?”

“No!” The word ripped out of John before he could stop it. “No,” he said more quietly. “I want to remember you, Jim. Hell, you’re one of the good things.”

Jim nodded slowly as though he understood. He was as John had remembered him, a lean, spare man dressed in an old flannel shirt and jeans with battered cowboy boots. Even though he must be an old man now, Jim looked about forty, with reddish brown hair just starting to be touched with silver, and lines around his eyes from too many days squinting into the sun. “Problem is, Johnny-me-lad, you have to take the good with the bad. You can’t decide just to remember the bits you like and throw away the rest. All the bits? They’re what made you who you are.”

“And that’s such a good thing?” The bitterness in John’s voice stood sharply between them.

Jim raised his eyebrows. When he spoke, it was as though John had said something very stupid about a young horse. “Well, yeah. That’s why you’re in Atlantis.”

Mention of the City made John realize why he was here. “I’ve got to go.” He hoped Jim could hear the urgency and recognize the truth of it.

“Of course you do.” Jim’s calm acceptance of his words made John feel like a fool. Jim always understood.

He started to turn back the way he’d come, but Jim’s voice stopped him.

“Next time you go back to Earth, look me up, Hotshot. I won’t be around forever, you know.”

John stared at Jim for a long moment, hearing what Chaya was saying. With a terse nod, he headed back toward the main entrance of the barn.

Outside, it was unexpectedly cold. Spring was making a bid for an early start. Daffodils bobbed in a stiff breeze, and a robin hopped across the yard, feathers fluffed against the chilly air. Mud squelched under his boots as he walked across the stable yard, uncertain of where he should be going. The house seemed like the logical destination, and he remembered that if he cut behind the garage, he would end up at the back of the house.

The gravel crunched underfoot as he entered the narrow alleyway between several outbuildings. He was sheltered from the wind here, and the temptation was to stay for a bit and collect his thoughts. The alley seemed longer than he remembered, and he began to get uneasy. He curled his fingers with tension and cold, and realized he was holding a P-90. Senses on hyper-alert, he exited the alley to find himself on the rocky bluffs of Afghanistan.

Whoa. He paused, uncertain of what do to next. The landscape reminded him of the Nevada desert outside of Vegas. At one time, before Atlantis, he’d thought of settling in Vegas when he was finally done with the military. The memory of that plan, and the reasons behind it, made him catch his breath. Feeling suddenly like a target, he turned to head back into the alley.

Lyle Holland was there.

“No,” John said aloud, coming to a hard halt and running one hand through his hair as he tried to decide where to go next.

“Thanks,” Captain Holland said, with that slow seductive smile of his. The one he’d only ever shared with John. “Way to make a guy feel welcome, Shep.”

“Don’t make me do this.” John clutched at his weapon as though he might have to use it.

Lyle shook his head slowly, even as he moved deliberately in John’s direction. He was dressed in desert camo, and he had a makeshift bandage tied on one thigh. There was a seeping wound in his abdomen—the blood from it was spreading across his BDUs, but he seemed not to notice.

John backed up until he made contact with one of the walls of the alley, and then closed his eyes and turned his head away from the sight of Lyle walking toward him.

“John.” Lyle’s voice was soft, pleading.

John opened his eyes and they were in a bar. Johnny Cash was singing Hurt over the jukebox and John had never thought a song more appropriate to his life than that one just now. He looked down at his hands—they were empty. His gun was nowhere to be seen.

Lyle Holland was alive and unwounded. He was dressed in civilian clothes and even though John had nowhere else to go; Lyle kept closing in on him with relentless determination. John had his back against the wall in the narrow hallway leading to the restrooms. No one from the bar could see them.

“This never happened,” John said. Desperation made his voice sharp.

Lyle licked his lips. “No, but I always wanted it to. You did too. We both knew that.”

“It wasn’t worth the risk.”

Lyle gave him a rueful smile and closed the distance between them. Taking John’s face in his hands, he bestowed a gentle kiss on John’s lips. John held his breath the entire time.

Lyle let go of him and stepped back. “No,” he agreed. “Not in Afghanistan. Not in that place and time. But I wanted it just the same and I want you to know that now. You asked me once if I had any regrets. I…well, I lied. I regret not kissing you when I had the chance.”

John closed his eyes. He didn’t want to hear this. “I’m sorry, Lyle. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I tried.” Oh god, I tried.

“I know.” Lyle’s smile was unbearably tender. Not the expression John expected to see on a captain in the Air Force. The love in Lyle’s face shone though, making it hard to look at him. “You came through for me just the same, though. You were there for me. I didn’t die alone, you know?”

John braced himself as Lyle stepped forward again and enveloped him in a hug. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it. You were there for me when it mattered.” Lyle whispered in his ear. “Don’t forget that, okay? That’s all I’ve got.”

John nodded slightly, cursing Chaya in new and inventive ways. Lyle laughed and released him. “Hey,” he said, “don’t make the same mistake again.”

“What are you talking about?” John hated that he sounded so defensive.

“You know what I’m talking about.” Lyle sounded slyly amused. “McKay. You have the hots for him, and he feels the same way about you.”

“And yet nothing has changed,” John said shortly, reminded himself that Lyle was long dead and gone and this was nothing more than Chaya playing mind games with him.

Lyle shrugged. “DADT is on the way out. It’s just a matter of time. You can be discreet between now and then.”

“It’s not worth the risk. Look what happened when I went back for you.”

Lyle laughed, and something in John that he hadn’t realized was wound tight suddenly ticked over and opened, like if a lock released. “Going back for me had nothing to do with how we felt about each other. You don’t leave people behind. Period. If you get kicked out of the military, it will be for disobeying orders, not for conduct unbecoming.” Lyle chuckled quietly to himself. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Shep. When you save the planet again and again, people have a tendency to cut you some slack. A lot of slack.” Lyle gave him such a big grin that John could not help but smile back.

“Rodney’s a smart man. He’ll make it work until secrecy is no longer an issue. In the meantime, you’ve got a City to save.”

“Oh, right.” John was disconcerted. He still didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to be doing here. He closed his eyes and thumped his head on the wall behind him slowly and deliberately several times.

A soft, feminine laugh made him open his eyes again.

“Elizabeth.” The grief on seeing her before him was as strong as the moment he’d had to leave her behind on the Replicator home world, knowing he was essentially signing her death warrant. He’d been forced to choose between her and saving Atlantis, however, and given how she’d sacrificed over and over for the City in the past, he’d known what his answer would be, even as she’d ordered him to leave her behind. The decision haunted him though. It was one of those things that clawed at him when he woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep.

“John.” There was a wealth of love and forgiveness in her tone, and it was like a dagger in his heart. The ache of it stabbed fresh at wounds he’d long since thought healed.

let you down. I let you down.

As though she could hear his thoughts, Elizabeth moved toward him until she embraced him in a hug. What’s with all the touchy-feely crap?

Elizabeth laughed and let him go. Her laugh was as he remembered it, as light and free as a swallow wheeling in and out of the barn. “Oh John,” she said, not explaining herself further.

He got it now. To deny his memories because of the losses he’d experienced was to deny himself the wonderful benefits of knowing and remembering the people he’d loved, whether he could admit that or not. Right. So now what?

“Major, think about where we are in the solar system.”

Rodney was speaking to him now. He was wearing that bright, orange fleece jacket when everyone else was in blue and gray, and his voice, crisp and concise, was like North on a compass.

“We’re in Pegasus, McKay,” he heard himself drawl, “and we’re under attack.”

“Precisely,” Rodney said in that supercilious manner that made John’s cock twitch. Because seriously, confidence was cool. “So what are you going to do about it? You’re the man with the plan, after all.”

“Well, I dunno.” John felt suddenly at a loss. The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint Rodney. He thought for a moment. “Whoever is behind this is sending bad data our way, right? Corrupting our files in preparation for a takeover.”

“That’s the working theory, yes.” Rodney frowned as he spoke, and John had to remind himself that this really wasn’t Rodney he was talking to right now.

“So data transmission works both ways, right? I mean, I can send something back as well, can’t I?”

Rodney’s face lit up and John realized just how often making that happen was one of his goals in life. “Oh, that’s just wicked!” Rodney’s delight was evident.

Cool, John thought, as he implemented his plan.

****

As time passed with little visible change, Rodney became aware of some discussion going on behind him and then Radek appeared at his side.

“It’s not working,” Radek said in a low but urgent voice, thrusting a laptop into Rodney’s hands. “We need to try something else. Look here,” he continued, tapping at the screen incessantly. “We’re starting to lose core containment. Once that goes, there will be nothing tying any of our networks together – we will no longer be in control of the city.”

Rodney glanced down at the screen, noting almost abstractly that Radek was correct and that their internal networks were on the verge of fragmenting completely. But then some instinct drew his attention back to John. There was something almost hypnotic about the sight of John becoming one with Atlantis – he looked strong and powerful, despite his prone position, and somehow Rodney knew that everything would all be all right.

He pushed the laptop back to Radek. “It’s okay,” he said. “John’s got it covered.”

He could tell that Radek was just about to argue back when, all of a sudden, everything went black once more. For one awful moment, Rodney wondered whether he had put too much faith in John. After all, John didn’t even remember fully and Rodney had basically told him he was the only one who could save Atlantis. Despite the fact that it was true, he still could probably have phrased things a bit better or come up with some kind of back-up plan, even if it was only a mass evacuation.

But, before he could act, the lights blinked back on, their renewed power so bright that it momentarily blinded him. He squinted towards the Chair, trying to make out what had happened.

“Well, that was fun,” John drawled as the Chair righted itself and he slowly rose to his feet, one hand reaching out to rub tentatively at his temples.

Rodney blinked, trying to organize his thoughts into something at least partially cohesive, as he walked quickly to John’s side.

“Are you all right? What happened?” he asked, this thoughts whirling. “Were you able to detect the defective code? Is Atlantis still under attack?”

John laughed and, to Rodney’s surprise, reached out to place a comforting hand on Rodney’s shoulder. “Relax, buddy,” he said. “It’s all good.”

Rodney spluttered – it was just like John to be all vague and casual about matters of life and death. “What do you mean ‘it’s all good’?” he insisted. “Details – I need details.”

John looked beyond Rodney then to Sam. “The malware is gone,” he reported. “Once I’d remembered how to connect with Atlantis, it didn’t take long to tell what code didn’t belong.” He winced as he spoke, as if the out of place code had been almost painful to him or, rather, Atlantis. “Anyway, once I knew where it all was – and there was a shit load of it – I just deleted it.” He shrugged, as if seeking out and deleting what Rodney estimated must have been at least several hundred thousand lines of code was a simple task.

“We’ll still need to review our systems to prevent this happening again,” Sam said. She came up beside them, her gaze flicking between Rodney and John. “Rodney, we need to make this a priority for the Science Department.”

Rodney was just about to reply, ideas of how to block a variety of transmission frequencies already starting to pinwheel through his brain, when John interrupted him.

“No need,” he said casually. “At least, there’s no hurry. Before I cut my connection with Atlantis, I sent a transmission of my own back along the pathway.”

“Oh?” Rodney asked, intrigued.

“Yeah,” John replied, his eyes alighted with triumph of a successful battle. “I had Atlantis encrypt a deletion algorithm into the transmission – one that should steadily work its way through the Replicators systems until they don’t remember ever coming across us.”

Rodney gaped. It was a brilliant idea – one that should push the Replicators back by years at the very least. Of course, they would no doubt find a way to counter John’s retaliation at some point in time, but that could be decades in the future. Maybe longer.

This time Rodney reached out for John, placing a hand on his shoulder in a move which mirrored the way John had recently reached out for him. He grinned up at John, certain that his delight with the way things had turned out was clear in his expression. For a moment, John’s face was equally open and, in that moment, Rodney found himself wishing that their memories had never returned. That they could go back to being friends and lovers. That he could stand at John’s side as his colleague and his partner, with no repercussions for John’s career.

Then the shutters came down sharply over John’s features and he pulled himself, almost roughly, from Rodney’s grasp. Stunned at this abrupt change, Rodney watched helplessly as John made his excuses to Sam – something about a headache from using the Chair and writing her a report – and quickly left the room.

All around him, Sam, Radek and the other scientists were starting on the clean-up – reviewing the data logs for the time John had been connected to Atlantis’ AI and going through the areas the malicious software had infiltrated. Rodney felt torn – a part of him desperate to follow John. even though he knew he would not be welcome, while the rest of him was resigned to the fact that he needed to stay here and deal with the aftermath.

“You should go after him,” Teyla said.

Rodney looked over at her in surprise; he’d not heard her approach

She smiled up at him wryly, as if sensing his thoughts. “At least, that is my opinion,” she clarified. “As someone who cares deeply about both of you.”

At the contrite note in her voice, Rodney felt a rush of shame at the way he’d treated her well-meaning intervention. “Teyla,” he began in a rush. “I’m sorry-”

“Don’t,” she interrupted softly, raising a hand to stop his flow of words. “Just go – take this second chance and do something about the possibilities that having no memory has given you.”

Pausing only to give Teyla an impulsive hug, Rodney ran from the room, intent on finding John.

****

It sounded like someone was leaning on the buzzer to his door when John exited his bathroom, fresh from the shower. He rubbed the back of his neck and winced as he headed for the door. Standing in the hot water for twenty minutes or so was well over the regulation three minute military shower—but it had felt so good. Now that he was out, the dull ache of pain at his temples was back again. He wrapped a towel around his waist and draped another around his neck as he came back into the main room. “It’s open,” he said, making it so with a single thought as he rooted around in a drawer for some ibuprofen.

He’d learned the hard way that after a major integration with the Chair, a massive headache was likely. Probably because even though he had the ATA gene in spades, he wasn’t actually an Ancient. He’d also learned that pain meds worked best if taken quickly, before the pounding set in. He hated feeling as though he’d done a bolt from the Chair Room as soon as the threat was over, but he’d needed the space.

Rodney burst through his door as though he was being chased by a Wraith. This wasn’t al that unusual for Rodney, but as he’d assumed that Rodney would be tied up for a while checking the systems, his first thought was that something was wrong. Shit, he knew he should have waited before leaving. It wasn’t the headache you were trying to stave off, now was it?

“What’s up?” he asked, as Rodney came to a dead stop in the center of the room. Rodney tried to speak, gesturing over his shoulder at the door that was now closing, but his mouth just flapped soundlessly for a moment. Even that small action ground to a halt as he stared at John.

John felt his ear tips burn with embarrassment. “McKay,” he drawled, hoping he didn’t sound like Rodney’s awestruck perusal of his semi-naked state was a problem. “Is everything okay?”

“Huh? What? Oh! Right. Well, um, yes. I mean no. I mean yes, everything’s fine. Just fine.”

“That’s good. You had me worried.” John had to hide his smile at Rodney’s babbling. He turned back to his search for the ibuprofen. When he located the bottle in the drawer, he shook two tablets out into his hand and tossed them back; chasing them down with some bottled water. When he turned to face Rodney, he was amused to find that Rodney had tilted his head sideways, presumably to check out John’s towel-clad ass.

Now it was Rodney’s turn to visibly flush and look embarrassed. John had always found Rodney’s capacity for embarrassment in social situations ridiculously endearing in one so arrogant in most situations.

You two have the hots for each other. Life’s too short to be stupid.

He heard the words in his head in Lyle’s voice, and he wanted to argue that it was stupid to risk everything he had here because he cared about someone.

Lyle’s belly laugh roared through his head. Since when has that ever stopped you?

The presence of someone else was gone, and John knew it wouldn’t be back. He couldn’t help smiling, though, just the same.

“What?” Rodney asked, suspicious, and yet wanting in on the joke as well. The mixture of emotions so clearly present on his face decided things for John. He didn’t need to know why Rodney was there. He just needed to act now, or forever hold his peace.

If there was ever an example of thinking makes it so, it would be you, Colonel.

The memory of Keller’s words decided it for him.

He moved deliberately toward Rodney. He dragged the towel that was around his shoulders off his neck and tossed it to the floor as he moved. Rodney’s expression took on the panicked look of someone who’d just realized that the walls of the room in which he was standing were starting to contract in on him, and he glanced around wildly for an escape.

“I was just worried about you, that’s all,” Rodney said rapidly, taking a step backward. John continued moving toward his target. “I mean, you took off so suddenly after you saved the City, once again, I might add, and so I thought I’d just come down and make sure you were, you know, really okay.”

Rodney kept backing up in John’s advance until he bumped against the wall. Startled, he placed his palms against it, bracing for whatever John planned to do to him.

“I’m okay,” John said. “I’m better than okay.” He stopped within arm’s length of Rodney. Either of them could reach out and touch the other if they desired. Rodney’s gaze, which had been determinedly toward anything else in the room but John, was now fixated on him again. Not on John’s face; Rodney seemed to be taking his fill of staring at John. It was weird, being the object of such scrutiny, but the look on Rodney’s face was one of fascination. It made John feel like the hottest guy in the universe to have Rodney look at him like that, and he seriously considered just dropping his towel and seeing what would happen. Rodney reached toward him as though he couldn’t help but touch. His fingers curled and he dropped his hand back to his side when he became aware of what he was doing.

John took another step closer. Any closer and they’d be sharing the same breath.

“I know what this is,” Rodney said, lifting his chin a bit. John had seen this bravado in the face of being cornered before, and it never failed to make him proud of Rodney in ways that were only now starting to make sense. “This is you being all ‘one with your feelings’.” Rodney made little finger quotes as he spoke, still leaning back into the wall, his posture defensive now. “This happens every time you have one of those prolonged Ancienty experiences. It’s like something temporarily gets uncorked and you’re all ready to share for a bit, but before you can, everything gets sealed back up again. It never lasts.” Rodney’s voice got quieter at the end of his speech.

“Ancienty experiences?” John asked, letting Rodney hear the tease in his voice.

Rodney relaxed just a fraction. “You know what I mean.” He waved vaguely toward the wall, which John took to indicate the City.

John nodded. Rodney was right; that had been typical of what had happened in the past every time John had been exposed to the Ancients for any length of time. He suspected that was why he was so attracted to them, when he had no intention of ever Ascending himself. Not this time though. This time was different. He cleared his throat and spoke.

“I’m sorry.” Rodney frowned. “What did you say? You’re mumbling.”

John tried again. “I want to hug you.” The words came out more forcefully than he’d intended.

Rodney gaped at him. ‘You want to what? Let me get this straight. You’re standing here, half-naked, smelling good, and with miles of damp skin everywhere, and you know, that.” Rodney pointed at John’s cock, which was making its own bid for attention known now. “And you just want to hug me? You, John Sheppard, the King of Touch Me Not, want to—oh!” Rodney broke off, stunned as he made the connection.

This isn’t worth it. John started to turn away.

“No, no, no, wait!” Rodney grabbed him by the arm. John stopped mid-turn to look at Rodney’s grip on his arm and then back at him over his shoulder. “I get it now.” Rodney let go of John’s arm, spreading his own arms wide. “I get it.” His stance was pure invitation, and yet John still could not move.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You’re so bad at this!” Rodney slapped his arms against his sides with a huff before stepping forward to envelop John in a hug. It was awkward—the angle was off, and Rodney was crushing his chin into John’s shoulder, but it was perfect all the same. Instead of letting Rodney tug him around for a proper hug, John made the turn to meet him. The sigh when they fit together said it all—more so when John realized that it had come from him.

Rodney held him like that for a long time, his hands sneaking up to rest on John’s shoulders, pressing the two of them together. It was only natural when Rodney finally lifted his head for John to kiss him. They kissed slowly at first, as though they had all night, all the rest of their lives to do so, but instead of a slow, warm glow, something ignited between them. Rodney managed to pull off John’s towel and wrap his hand around John’s cock while never breaking off his kiss, and John pulled at Rodney’s clothing, determined to find skin as soon as possible. In the end, they stumbled backward toward the bed, kissing and touching, separating only long enough for Rodney to pull off another piece of clothing before they smashed back together again, all wet heat and thrust and urgency.

“Well,” Rodney said some time later, his voice lax and slow for once. “That was over embarrassingly fast.” He lay on his back, with one arm across his belly. There was very little room in the bed—no way to avoid contact, even if John had wanted to.

John rolled onto his side, taking Rodney’s arm and pulling it across his chest. Rodney rolled with him, until he was curled around John, his softening cock nestled up against John’s ass. “I think we both wanted that for a while.” Hard to believe it had been four years of him wanting Rodney. To think it took amnesia for him to figure out it was mutual. “So if you count that as foreplay…”

Rodney snorted, blowing warm, moist air on the back of John’s neck, stirring his hair. “You’re being kind. We um, that is, at least I did, well, we sort of went off like rockets, didn’t we?”

“We got the important part right.” John closed his fingers briefly on Rodney’s forearm.

“Yeah,” Rodney said softly. “I guess we did.”

****

John didn’t remember where he was when he first woke up. It took him a second to place himself in his room. He had a crick in his neck from sleeping with it at an odd angle, and his left arm was asleep because it was folded under him—which was weird because he didn’t sleep on his left side due to the old shoulder injury. He lifted his head, wincing at the pain, to realize his right arm was draped over Rodney.

In the morning light, Rodney’s face looked softer. John could see the bristles of his day- old stubble, knowing he’d die before he told Rodney how hot he found that. The sun burnished his lashes with molten gold, and John recalled the pictures Jeannie had shared with him of Rodney as a teenager, and his impossibly angelic curls. Rodney had been achingly gorgeous as a young man in an almost fragile sort of way, and John wondered what it had been like to grow up brilliant and beautiful. It had to have been tough, hence the shield of sarcasm. Though he knew Rodney would never believe him, John preferred him the way he looked now—receding hairline and all. The Rodney before him was tough enough to handle Pegasus, and that was good enough for John.

His neck protested at the prolonged adoration of Rodney while he slept, so John put his head back on the pillow and carefully rolled onto his back. The blood pounded back into his arm and he felt the burning sensation of capillaries closed off reopening and allowing circulation again.

The things you do for love. He grinned at the ceiling. So much for being discreet. He’d have to do better in the future, he knew, but sometimes you had to make allowances for special occasions, too.

His laptop pinged, indicating he had a message in his inbox.

“Don’t answer that,” Rodney ordered from his side of the bed, lifting one hand to point at the ceiling before letting it fall heavily to the bed once more.

“It could be important.” John was already swinging his legs out of bed. He went over to the table to open his messages.

“It’s always important,” Rodney said, “except when it’s not.” He laid one arm over his eyes. John thought it a measure of his infatuation that this statement made a weird sort of sense to him. “It’s probably someone wondering if you know where I am. God forbid I get twelve fucking hours off—crap! What time is it?” Rodney suddenly sat up to look at his watch. “Shit. I should have been at lab already. Why didn’t Radek call me? Who knows what’s been going on since—oh my god, since yesterday evening.”

He began to pat around the bedding, looking for his clothing.

“Relax, McKay.” John leaned over the laptop, one hand resting on the table as he scrolled through the emails. “Zelenka’s sent out a general post indicating the status of the City—everything’s in the green. Carter wants a briefing at 0900, so we’re in good shape there, hell, we might even have time for breakfast.” As long as we don’t linger in the shower. John cast a glance over at Rodney, who was out of bed now and holding up a pair of boxers, trying to figure out if they belonged to him or not. He had an impressive hard-on, and seemed oblivious to that fact. Screw breakfast.

There was a Spartan note from Ronon, who said that they could skip running just this one day. John had to look twice to make sure, but there was no denying the smiley face Ronon had put in the email. An email from Lorne indicated that everyone was taking John’s headache for granted, and implied a general assumption that McKay was resting from the work he’d put in on the programming as well. There was even a note from Keller, reminding everyone that had been ill not to push themselves too hard and to be sure to rest, and drink lots of fluids. He thought he could see Teyla’s subtle guidance behind it, and didn’t know if he should be concerned or relieved.

There was one email address he didn’t recognize. Frowning, and hoping he wasn’t making a big mistake, he clicked on the untitled message from godiva@atlantismail.com.

He gasped as the screen filled with data.

“What?” Rodney had managed to find his own boxers and socks, though he still held his shirt in his hands. He looked at John as though seeing him for the first time, and licked his lips.

“Save that thought,” John said, motioning Rodney over to the laptop. “Get your ass over here.”

Rodney hurried over, clearly concerned as he leaned in to look at the laptop. “What? What? Wait… is that what I think it is?” His voice rose in excitement as he stared at screen, his eyes darting back and forth as he took in the designs scrolling past.

“Yep.” John straightened, crossing his arms over his chest, enjoying just how completely natural it felt to be standing naked with Rodney while making a new discovery. “Blueprints for a spaceship. From the looks of it, smaller than the Daedalus, but more heavily armed than a scout ship. My guess? An ancient battlecruiser.”

“But what? How? Where did this come from? We’ve been here four years—why is this just showing up now? And why directed at you?’ Rodney tore his glance away from the screen long enough to turn his intense stare on John.

The attached blueprints stopped downloading. With a grin, John pointed to the words that appeared at the bottom of the screen.

“Now we’re even.” The only signature was the letter ‘C’ followed by a dash.

“C. C,” Rodney repeated to himself. He suddenly snapped his fingers. “You were in the Chair. You were communing with All Things Ancient. This, this is from that—”

John sprang on Rodney and placed his palm firmly over Rodney’s mouth. “Now, Rodney,” he drawled meaningfully. “You know better than to look a gift Ancient in the mouth. Who’s to say this isn’t because I was trawling through the database yesterday? Because, we all know the Ancients aren’t allowed to interfere with the lives of us mere mortals.”

Wide eyed, Rodney nodded slowly. John liked the way Rodney looked with his hand over his mouth. Even as the thought crossed his mind, Rodney’s eyes took on a speculative gleam. His tongue flicked out and brushed John’s palm.

Damn, if there was anything that could derail John from checking out the new spaceship, that was it.

“We’ll tell Carter we were late because we found the spaceship,” John said with a laugh, pulling Rodney in for a kiss.

“We’d be telling the truth,” Rodney said, lips curving against John’s as he kissed him back.

~fin