The ground was hard and the rough wooden handle of the tool felt odd and unfamiliar in his hands. He looked down at them, raw and reddened in the cold morning air and then a shout had him looking up again. The man yelling at him from the side of the field was speaking in a language incomprehensible to him, but he knew what the other man intended just the same. Keep working. Work or you do not eat. Work or we will hit you.
Whatever, a corner of his mind supplied, and he tightened his grip on the handle. The handle of the hoe. The word came to him suddenly, as words sometimes did, in a burst of illumination, only to leave him feeling flat and cold when the insight changed nothing. Whatever it was called, it was still a tool in his hands with which he was to dig holes in the semi-frozen ground. It wasn't even the right time of the year to plant things—though how he knew this, he wasn't sure. This was just busy-work, something that you made the newbies do, to teach them unquestioning obedience. He knew that too, knew instinctively he'd been through something similar before, recognized as well that what he was experiencing now was inherently different.
He just didn't know different how.
His existence, as he remembered it, began eleven days ago. He knew the word day was what to call the cycle between a single span of sunlight and darkness, but he could not remember what groupings of days were called. He didn't think it mattered much. Not as much as noting that the calluses on his hands did not match the blisters that he was developing, or that he and the other people who worked the fields all had a shiny implant embedded into the right side of their heads or that he was the only one of the workers that did not seem to understand the language. Or that he was the only one who ever got angry.
The other workers seemed passive in their chores. Oh sure, they hated the cold, and working in the fields without the proper clothing (gear, his brain supplied) and the fact that they weren't getting much to eat. But he seemed to be the only one who objected, who resisted, who fought back when pushed around.
He'd gotten punched and beaten a few times before he'd learned to hide the anger. Watch and learn. He could do that. The men who supervised the fieldwork had seemed to relax a bit after that, though they were quick to warn him if they thought he was getting out of line again. At night, after the workers had eaten and crawled wearily into the communal hut for sleeping, he would lie awake and wonder about who he was and who he had been. He'd thought about leaving this place but his mind teased him with thoughts of where—at least here he had food and shelter of a sort. He didn't have enough information yet. He needed to wait. Sometimes odd thoughts and memories would come to him in the early morning hours—in that tiny window between sleeping and waking. He began to crave that small slice of time, but to pursue it too vigorously was to watch it slip through his fingers like the silt in the bottom of the creek bed.
He'd risen early that morning and gone to the creek for water without being told, drinking from the ice cold stream on his hands and knees before filling the water buckets. Like a dog, he'd thought and the image of a large, black animal leapt into his mind—blocky, square-cut head and muzzle, lolling tongue, floppy ears. It was the expression of the creature that captivated him in his sudden vision though. The exuberant expectation of 'we're going to do something fun'. He'd known somehow that there were no dogs here and that thought depressed him somewhat.
He'd come back with the water buckets and set them up in their place so that the workers would find them when they rose, and then he'd begun efficiently starting the campfire that would be used to make the tik-tik that the others drank. It had taken him a while to get used to the syrupy sweetness of the boiled tik-tik root, but it went a long way to offsetting the nauseating, glutinous mess that served as breakfast. He'd learned to eat that too, discovering that it was necessary in order to put in a full day's work. He'd been pretty sure he'd had worse. The first time he'd eaten it, he'd gotten a mental image a man eating a similar looking glop of food and hearing himself say, "You really like that stuff?"
At least, he thought it had been him speaking. His brain seemed to suggest that it was, but he'd never actually heard himself talk. Oh he tried, but the words would not come to him. His mouth would open, but nothing would come out.
So he'd concentrated instead on the image of the other man—long, sharp nose, thin mobile lips, penetrating blue eyes. An engaging grin (though his brain also suggested this was not always the case). He told himself that this other guy was important, because he looked so different from the workers—in dress, in coloring, in overall appearance. It had to mean something.
That morning, as he'd poked at the fire with a stick and gotten the tik-tik going, the cloth flap covering the door to the hut had opened and Fred had come out. At least, that's what he called the guy in his head—he had to call him something. Fred was tall with long, reddish-brown hair and a full beard and had been in the camp long enough to intimidate the newer arrivals into giving him most of their outer garments. Fred had stepped out into the frosty air stretching, small clouds of vapor released as he breathed. He had straightened and looked over at the fire with a smoldering glance.
Fred was a potential problem. He'd tended the fire without looking up; ignoring the stare that Fred was giving him. Most of the other workers left him alone—the language barrier was a big factor in that. But he'd also discovered, one night when he'd broken up a scuffle over food, that he had unusual fighting skills compared to the other workers. The Bourne Identity, his mind suggested, but the words proved meaningless to him—there was simply nothing further to grasp beyond the phrase itself. The workers had granted him some respectful space after that. Fred, however, had made it very obvious that he was interested in the newbie that couldn't speak. The first time Fred had cupped his ass and had gotten a fistful of knuckles in return hadn't deterred him much. Fred still cast a lustful eye in his direction most days.
The thing was, he wasn't opposed to sex with men in principle—he knew that too somehow. He could tell which workers were horrified by the idea as well as the ones that submitted out of fear. Sometimes in that early morning time, he could almost picture someone lying close and warm beside him, could smell familiar skin if he just turned his head, could reach down and close his own hand over the hand slowly jacking him off. That the person next to him was masculine and not feminine didn't seem to matter. Those brief moments of memory were the best part of his day.
But Fred bore watching. Sooner or later, Fred was going to challenge him in some way, either over sex or because Fred needed to feel like he was the strongest guy in the bunch. When that day came, he'd have to decide how to respond. Until then, he'd just keep his head down and try not to attract any more attention.
He dug the hard ground slowly, pausing to glance up at the sun. A long way to go before the day warmed up or they could expect any food. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and ducked the blow before it landed on his shoulder. It was the field supervisor; face red with either cold or anger, shaking a fist and yelling at him, no doubt for not working very enthusiastically. He stared back as he leaned on the hoe handle, feeling one eyebrow rise and noting that this seemed to raise the supervisor's blood pressure as well. His brain positively itched to say something suitably smart-assed to the man raging at him, while at the same time acknowledging that it was probably just as well that he couldn't speak because, yeah, making a smart-assed comment was probably not the brightest thing he could've done at the moment.
The supervisor raised a fist to strike him and he rapidly weighed the risk:benefit ratio of blocking the blow with the handle of the hoe. Before he could act however, there came a curious whine and a 'whump' of sound and then the supervisor arched his back and his entire body briefly lit with a reddish glow that crawled over him like flames licking a log on the fire. He collapsed in a heap on the ground.
The other workers ran screaming from the field, but he dropped to the ground beside the supervisor, using the prone body as a shield as he peered up and over at the source of the blast. The supervisor was still alive and had no apparent injuries. Stunned. But by what?
He soon got his answer. From the tree line, a huge man came running in his direction, weapon drawn. As the man approached, he could see that this man was different from either the supervisor or the workers, skin darker in color and hair matted up in locks that looked like a lion's mane. The image of a lion with those same greenish-gold eyes flashed before him as he rolled to his feet and swung the hoe into a defensive posture. The lion man was followed by a lithe, athletic looking woman, who held an impressive weapon at the ready, obviously covering their approach.
The man frowned and came to a halt as the hoe came up. He began to speak in a growling voice. The woman joined him and began to speak quietly while the lion man looked obviously impatient. As he watched, the man touched something in his ear and spoke again, but it didn't seem like he was talking to the woman. The woman stepped forward and held out a hand in a placating manner. He raised his eyebrow again. It wasn't like he was really in a position to defend himself if they decided to shoot him, but they didn't seem to be angry with him. He couldn't help but be interested in what was going on. It suddenly occurred to him that this was what he'd been waiting for—but he still did not know how to respond.
The big guy spoke to the air again and then reached out to take him by the arm. He blocked the move with the hoe handle and watched as the other man tightened his mouth and grabbed at the handle, forcing the two of them into a tug of war. It was no real contest: the arms of the other guy bulged with muscles and with an interesting little twist the hoe was wrenched out of his sore hands and tossed aside. The woman adjusted her weapon so that it was in a neutral position and then approached him again, hands open, palms up, speaking in a soothing tone, the way to approach a wild pony.
Pony conjured up a sturdy beast with a coat shining like a copper penny, which reminded him of this woman's hair and then the memory galloped away into nothingness. The woman seemed to be pleading with him. He watched both people warily. Nothing he'd learned so far in the last eleven days had taught him much good about people in general, but there had to be something better out there, he knew that. He also thought it odd that neither the man nor the woman spoke the language of the workers, or the even same language between them and that was another little strange bit to the puzzle that he found interesting.
The door to the hut flew open and Fred came charging out with a battle cry and swinging a length of wood. All three watched as the Fred ran ferociously towards them and he found himself thinking 'wait for it, wait for it,' until the lion man casually raised his arm, the muscles standing out in sharp relief as though carved in wood, the huge weapon steady in his hand. Fred had a moment of pulling up abruptly, but too late. The weapon discharged and Fred collapsed in the same manner as the supervisor, a look of surprise on his face.
He couldn't help it, he laughed. The lion man turned his head sharply to look at him and then grinned. It felt right somehow.
Something in the air nearby changed the pressure around them; he was the first to look up and was in time to see the air shimmer and waver (like the heat coming off the asphalt on a hot summer day) and amazingly, a large box-like structure hovered in the air above them before making a slightly wobbly descent to the ground. Once it touched down, a rear compartment door lowered and an agitated man appeared in the entranceway.
"Come on, come on, I got the device, let's hurry up and get out of here before the locals show up with their pitchforks." The man was waving his arms urgently and he felt his mouth fall open at his understanding of the words. "Is he alright?" The man continued anxiously. "Ohmygod, John, are you alright?" The man came down the ramp and locked eyes with him and he felt a jolt of recognition as he saw those blue eyes peering at him in concern. It was the man from his memory of the bland food and he wanted to reach out for him and say, "hey, I know you," but the words didn't come.
The woman was speaking again, but the man with the blue eyes didn't appear to be listening. Instead he was staring with narrowed eyes and the man suddenly reached out and touched the silver node on the side of his head. Pain arced through him and he arched back just like the people who had been stunned, crying out inarticulately before dropping to the ground and twitching.
The other man appeared to have been shocked as well; he yelped and cursed and then was suddenly kneeling at his side, stroking his arm, his shoulder, his hair and saying over and over, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it, I didn't know that would happen, I'm going to fix it, I promise."
Despite the fact that this guy had just caused him excruciating pain, something in him believed the man. Maybe because the guy was so upset. He tried to say with his eyes, 'It's ok, but just don't do that again,' and he got a tense smile in return. He started to get to his feet and felt a firm grip under one arm helping him up. The other guy didn't let go when they were both standing and he felt the need to frown and pull back a bit.
"No, no, you've got to come with us," the other man said, never taking those intense eyes off his face. "Look, we've got to hurry—I've performed all sorts of illegal acts on your behalf—Elizabeth might well have my head on a platter when we get back to Atlantis. You know how she gets when she thinks diplomacy has a snowball's chance in hell of working. This is your big escape—c'mon." The last word was delivered with urgency and another tug on his arm.
Something about the word Atlantis resonated within him, a hum, a harmonic, a song that he didn't understand but seemed like home. Home felt like a place he wanted to be.
The big guy said something and the man holding his arm snapped over his shoulder in response, "No, we are not going to stun him, Ronon. Brute force is not the answer to everything. Besides, we have no idea what stunning might do to that implant and I don't want to risk frying what little brains he has left."
He reached out and pushed the guy on the shoulder, protesting the comment with his expression as he pulled his arm free from the grip. The guy turned a look of confusion and dawning hope on him that made him feel uncomfortable, so he looked away. The woman was speaking quietly again, obviously talking to both men and he got the feeling that she did this a lot; that she was the voice of reason that was frequently ignored. He found himself giving her a rueful grin and she looked a little startled before she smiled back. She touched the man with blue eyes on the arm and spoke again.
The man said in an aside over his shoulder, "Yes, yes, Teyla, I think you're right." He focused that penetrating stare again, only this time there seemed to be sorrow and pleading embedded in it as well. "Look, John, that's your name, okay? John Sheppard."
No, John Doe is what you call someone with no identity.
"Teyla thinks you can understand something of what I'm saying and so do I, only I don't know how much. The important thing here is that we're your friends, see?" The guy somehow managed to imbue the word friends with so much more, but it was nebulous and frothy and did nothing to sustain him. "We're here to rescue you. Oh god." He turned away and began to speak rapidly to the other people. "This is all my fault—this should be me here and not him."
The big guy rumbled something again and the other man snarled, "We are not shooting him! How many times do I have to say that? Are you deaf or just willfully ignoring me?"
He looked back and forth at the two men glaring angrily at each other and tossed up his hands at shoulder height in a gesture of both 'pax' and surrender. The man with the blue eyes beamed at him suddenly. "Wait, he's decided to come with us. Okay, that's great. Let's go, then. Chop, chop. Hurry, before the Mongol hordes appear on the horizon."
He followed them to the back of the vehicle that his brain told him shouldn't be able to fly, much less hover, but another part of his head told him not to worry about it. He instinctively made for a seat near the viewscreen up front, but the man with the blue eyes took him by the arm and gently seated him in the opposite chair. "Not that I don't trust your flying skills right now, but well, I don't, not entirely."
The big man said something deep and growling from the seat behind them and the woman popped him sharply on arm with the back of one hand. He cast a glance to check the big guy's reaction, but he was grinning at the woman.
He watched, fascinated, as the man with the blue eyes went through the motions of lift-off, a green, lighted display appearing like magic before his eyes in the air in front of him, his hands moving (like a concert pianist) over the control console, flipping switches and bringing the little ship around to fly off in a different direction than it had been facing. He found himself grinning when the man looked over at him and the man smiled crookedly back at him, though the smile still looked painful somehow.
The man at the controls kept sneaking looks at him as the ship climbed higher into the sky and he finally pointed rudely at the viewscreen and tapped it impatiently. The blue-eyed man opened his mouth to say something but the big guy in the back laughed loudly and said something that caused him to clamp his lips shut tightly instead. The sky outside began to darken and then the stars appeared. A single word of awe and pleasure hovered around his brain, looking for a way out, but to no avail. He sat in silence and appreciated the view instead.
The man in the back said something again and the man at the controls spoke sharply in return. "I don't know yet, okay? I just barely got a look at it before it pulled a Frankenstein number on me with the electricity thing, and you saw what that did to him. I'm going to have to get the device back to Atlantis and study it further before we attempt anything else just yet."
The woman said something and the man at the controls answered her, but stared straight at him instead, looking at him as though he were some sort of odd puzzle that needed solving. "I think you're right, Teyla. Whatever the Zolon meant for the device to do, it didn't quite work as expected on him. He may not know who he is, or who we are," and his voice carried a note of sadness there, "but he's still in there. At least, some of his personality remains."
A rumbling growl came from the back and the man with blue eyes tore his gaze away to speak over his shoulder. "I thought of that, and yes, you're undoubtedly right. Of course, we don't know what the Ancients intended when they created it in the first place, but I'm sure it wasn't designed to be used the way the Zolon did—for the punishment of prisoners."
Teyla said something that sounded encouraging and the man with blue eyes gave a heavy sigh. "We'll have to search the database first and see if we can determine what the original function was—then I need to see if the device has been altered in any way by the Zolon or if it works differently on people with the ATA gene than everyone else. Or if the implant somehow acts to suppress the individual's personality. We just don't have enough information yet."
Teyla spoke again and the man's shoulders slumped. "I know, I know. We'll just have to stall for time. The Daedalus isn't due for at least a month—we've probably got until then before Elizabeth is forced to make a decision." He straightened, suddenly looking very determined. "I will fix this. You can count on it. Okay, we're coming up on the gate—dial it up, Teyla."
Teyla came forward between the two chairs and began punching symbols on a raised, round platform in the middle of the console. She smiled at him as she approached, but all he could think of as he watched her small, brown hand was the memory of sitting across from another boy with a similar row of buttons on a game board between them, waiting his turn as the buttons lit up in a pattern and he tried to duplicate them. The other boy in the memory looked up at him and he knew the boy's name, but he could not get the word to form in his brain.
As Teyla punched in the final button, the man with the blue eyes turned that crooked grin in his direction and said, "Get ready for the show."
Ahead of them in space, a large ring hung suspended in the void. As he watched, lights began to fire on the side of the ring and suddenly there was a great out-rushing of blue energy into the space in front of them, only to leap back into the ring and hover in a shimmering wave within. That word of awe stirred in the back of his mind again, but refused to come out and play.
"Thank god, it's all on autopilot from here," the man at the console said with a large sigh as the ship lined itself up for the ring of light.
Rodney, he thought. Your name is Rodney.
He felt a momentary surge of satisfaction before a wave of depression nearly swamped him. How did he know he wasn't just making that up, the way he'd named Fred?
The ship was on a course for the ring and then suddenly seemed sucked into it. He felt an intense cold and then a sensation of being pulled in all directions before he was suddenly released to find himself sitting in the same seat as before. Only they were no longer in space but hovering just inside a large room. A beautiful room. From what he could see, the ceilings stretched to the sky and it was all sunlight and warmth and color and prisms and geometric design and a thousand voices that began murmuring to him all at once.
Welcome home, John. Welcome home.
The ship didn't stay in that room, however. The small craft rose vertically and then went through an opening in the roof, taking them into what was obviously a place to store the little ships. A parking garage. When they landed, the big guy in the back spoke once more.
"I wouldn't worry too much about what Weir will say, McKay," the big man said. "She'll come around pretty quick, you'll see."
He felt a momentary disappointment at getting the blue-eyed man's name wrong before it registered that he'd understood the lion man this time. He turned his head sharply to look at him.
Teyla was watching him and she leaned forward in her seat. "John? Can you understand us now?"
He nodded his head to indicate he did.
"I don't get it. What changed? Back on the planet he acted like he could only understand you, McKay." The big guy was frowning again.
McKay seemed to be listening to some internal voice because he was staring off in a slightly unfocused manner before he shook his head and began speaking rapidly. "Maybe it had something to do with coming to Atlantis...or, oh, I know!" He jumped up a little in his seat and began snapping his fingers rapidly. "We went through the gate! The gate has a translation system that allows us to understand you guys, but if he got mindwiped, then he'd have gone back to the default factory setting—in other words, his own native English. That's why he could understand me but not you guys. But when we came through the gate, the translation system must have kicked in again..." he trailed off, looking thoughtful.
"What does this mean? That he simply needs some time before his memories come back as well?" Teyla glanced at him briefly before seeking her answer from McKay.
"I don't know. I doubt it would be that easy, or else the Zolon would not have found it to be such a good means of corporal punishment. And there's a big difference between comprehending the language and remembering who you are." McKay looked at him directly and said, "Your name is John Sheppard. You're a Lt. Colonel in the USAF and the CO of an Earth-based expedition to the Pegasus galaxy." He waited expectantly for a reaction.
'John' glanced back and forth between the other people who all seemed to be watching him with the same hopeful expression. He made a small face, spreading his fingers a little wider as they rested on his thigh as if to say, 'sorry'.
McKay slumped in his chair. "You see? I might as well be talking to a dog. I bet only one word in seven makes sense to him and the rest just sounds like 'blah, blah, blah'."
"Rodney!" Teyla said disapprovingly, but John found himself suddenly grinning. Hah. He was right about the name after all.
The big guy had a sly smile on his face as he shared an amused glance with John. "I'm betting he understands more than you think, McKay."
Rodney stared directly into John's eyes, frowned and then pulled back, watching John's pupils shift and narrow in focus as John tracked his movements. Recognizing the signs of awareness in John's reactions, Rodney was relieved to admit that it seemed like Ronon was right - it did appear that John was still in there somewhere. There was a certain sharpness to his gaze and in the way his eyes had followed Rodney around the room, focusing first on Rodney's face and then on his waving hands as Rodney had tried to explain to Carson what had happened on the planet. Still, Rodney couldn't be completely certain. As much as he tried to always hope for the best, he couldn't help but be something of a pessimist. Life, even before it had brought him to Pegasus, had taught him that if he expected and, more importantly, was prepared for the worst, then it made it all the more likely that he'd survive it. He narrowed his eyes and focused his attention back on John once more. It was going to be okay, he decided firmly. After all, they'd been through this at least a million times before: angry natives, mysterious Ancient devices, almost certain death, and last minute miracles – SOP for Team Sheppard.
Across the infirmary, Rodney could hear that Carson was still deep in consultation with Elizabeth. Teyla and Ronon were standing close by with a vaguely familiar blonde woman whose name Rodney couldn't recall, the three of them listening intently to the conversation. They were, no doubt, still discussing the worrying results of the scans Carson and the blonde had taken of John's brain – the ones that had indicated that great swathes of John's temporal lobes had been compromised. Rodney grunted to himself in disdain and proceeded to continue ignoring them all, preferring to concentrate on John himself.
It was all rubbish anyway, Rodney told himself angrily. What possible conclusions could be drawn from only a handful of scans? Rodney was no medical doctor, but he was an experienced scientist and, perhaps more importantly, well-used to the unpredictable nature of Ancient devices. He know that it just wasn't possible to take a few isolated pictures of so complex system as the human brain and from them alone determine the extent of someone's incapacitation. He leaned in a little closer again, studying John's changing expressions as he watched Rodney in turn. No, what was required was that such a system be watched carefully over time; its reactions observed, its variables measured, and as accurate a model as possible constructed of its workings. Only then could the way to repair whatever damage had been wreaked upon it be determined.
Rodney's gaze moved from John's face to the implant still embedded in his right temple, wincing in sympathy as he noticed that the puckered skin around where it had been attached looked red and inflamed. Carson hadn't yet attempted to remove it, preferring to take things slowly and try and look at its effects before embarking on anything proactive. Rodney couldn't fault his reasoning, but he still thought that they were focusing their attention on the wrong thing. It wasn't John's brain that was the problem – it was, if anything, merely a symptom. That implant and the Ancient device, which currently sat in Rodney's lab, were what held the answers, Rodney was sure of it – they were what they needed to be studying.
Rodney shifted his attention back to John's face, leaning closer still and losing himself in John's seemingly fathomless gaze. There had to be something in there to confirm Rodney's hope that all was not lost, some spark of recognition from John despite his apparent loss of both speech and memory. But, instead of the reassurance he sought, all Rodney succeeded in doing was to lose his balance on his high lab stool. He flailed his arms around, trying desperately to right the stool, but was unable to stop himself from toppling forward.
However, before he could hit the floor, Rodney felt a pair of strong arms catch him, halting his fall and enfolding him close to a strong, warm frame. He felt himself relax as he was held upright, his body recognizing instinctively the man who'd caught him and trusting itself completely to his care. For a few precious moments Rodney did nothing more than luxuriate in the sensation of being in John's arms again, his eyes closing as relief and joy swept through him in turn. Too close, he thought, they'd come far too close to losing John completely this time. Rodney brought his hands up to rest them on John's back, holding John to him and sighing with happiness.
It was the almost immediate freezing of John's body as Rodney returned his embrace - the abrupt tension that suddenly snapped through him and made him go rigid against Rodney - that brought reality crashing back down. Rodney pulled back quickly, heat flooding his face and feeling as awkward and foolish as he had been the first time that John had unexpectedly held him close.
It had started almost two months ago, when Rodney had been seriously injured during a run-in with the Wraith on PX5-TQ7. He'd gone down hard, caught in the leg by a blast from some energy weapon they'd never been able to identify, but which had hurt like hell. The agony he'd experienced had blotted out all other sensations, but before he'd even hit the ground, John had him. John had dropped his own weapon, sparing no thought for his own safety while he'd worked frantically to keep Rodney alive. He'd bound Rodney's leg tightly, staunching the copious flow of blood from the jagged wound, and managed to hoist him into a fireman's lift and carry him the not inconsiderable distance to the gate. Rodney's memories of the incident were blurred and patchy, but he remembered the aftermath of the mission. The slow process of healing, the weeks of painful therapy and John's gaze, heavy and serious on him in the increasingly rare times that they were in the same room as each other.
Rodney had been finally walking normally again by the time he'd managed to corner John – tracking him down to his quarters and pushing his way inside without giving John the time to make up another excuse to avoid him. It had been a bizarre confrontation – starting badly, with Rodney shouting at John, demanding to know what his problem was, feeling anger, hurt and rejection. It had ended, however, with him being kissed within an inch of his life by John, who'd held him so tightly that there'd been visible bruises on his skin for days afterwards. When Rodney had finally snuck out of John's quarters hours later in the dead of night, his uniform crumpled and his body lax with pleasure, he'd felt no less confused, but at least he knew that, for the time being, he was no longer rejected.
It had been the beginning of what had become just another facet to their admittedly complex relationship; their friendship had remained unchanged – as caustic and competitive as it always had been – but now there was this novel element to it. Every now and then, more often than not after a particularly dangerous mission, they'd end up locked together, desperate and needy, losing themselves to the mindless pleasure they could generate by the hot, hard press of their mouths and bodies.
It was something that Rodney had yet to figure out completely and, if he was being entirely honest, was something he was loathe to question too closely lest it should suddenly cease to be. Rodney might be a civilian, but he'd worked for the US military for long enough to know that regulations like DADT were not to be tampered with lightly. Even on Atlantis, light-years away from Earth and under civilian command, the military law was still what ultimately governed the city's military personnel, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard included. So Rodney had guarded his tongue and worked his hardest not to give John any reason for breaking things off between them. Rodney shook his head, annoyed at himself because now here he was, lapsing at the first moment that John was put in danger.
"Damn it," Rodney cursed under his breath, realizing that not only had he endangered John's position with his inappropriate behavior, but that he'd probably also managed to further traumatize him. "I'm sorry," he apologized quickly, stepping away from John and holding his hands out in what he hoped was a non-threatening manner. "I didn't mean to, you know, touch you like that... or anything. It's just that you... well, that I... and, uh, you, and, well, what I mean is that we..."
He trailed off as John's confusion appeared to be increasing exponentially. It stood to reason, he supposed, talking had never really been their strong suit – at least not talking about them, about what they were to each other. Or, perhaps more accurately, what they had been – if, indeed they had been anything more than just a regular buddy fuck. Rodney was still a bit fuzzy on that point, and not at all that eager to be enlightened if John saw him as no more than that. Not that he wanted more, per se. Only... well, he did. Or had. Looking over at John now, who was regarding him with quiet and solemn intensity, Rodney acknowledged that it no longer mattered what he and John did or did not have, all that mattered now was getting John well again.
"What did those bastards do to you?" he asked under his breath, aware of the helplessness welling inside him. He quashed it promptly, channeling his worry and fear into the fierce determination which he knew would not let him rest until he had succeeded. "Well, whatever they did, I am going to figure it out and make it right," he concluded with a self-satisfied nod, crossing his arms over his chest and fixing John with his most determined glare.
At his words, something in John's expression changed – it wasn't quite what Rodney would call recognition, or even comprehension, but it was awfully close to both. He felt a small surge of triumph run through him as he realized that John was reacting to him, just as he had down on the planet. It wasn't much – John just took a few hesitant steps towards him – but it was more than anything John had displayed so far. This time, it looked almost as if John knew Rodney, that John recognized him, knew who he was and understood what he was saying. Rodney held his breath, mentally encouraging John, willing him to do something or say something, anything, to prove that he had retained something of his memories and abilities despite the damage that damn machine had done to his brain.
John came to a halt about a foot away from Rodney, his eyes narrowing slightly as he tilted his head to one side. He was no longer simply watching Rodney, John was now actively considering him. After a few moments, all signs of trepidation cleared from John's expression completely and the beginnings of his familiar smirk started to grace his features. It was such a familiar look that Rodney half-expected John to reach out and clap him on the shoulder; or to lift an eyebrow and drawl something about Rodney's ego and how it was his turn to save the day, after all. Of course, John did neither of these things, but as Rodney found himself staring once again into John's hazel eyes, he realized that he was becoming increasingly convinced that John really was still in there. It was only that he was a little bit lost – something which was not too out of the ordinary for him. And, as always, Rodney was here for him, ready to set things right.
Unfortunately, the whole Rodney setting things right thing was unavoidably delayed by the pointless bureaucracy fondly known on Atlantis as formal debriefings. Rodney fumed quietly to himself as Elizabeth, Carson, Teyla, Ronon and the blonde proceeded to go over what had happened on the planet yet again; as if they hadn't already discussed it all to death in the infirmary. The blonde turned out to be a medical doctor of some sort, even though she looked to Rodney to be all of twelve, named Keller. And, despite his irritation at the ridiculous waste of time, Rodney supposed he could forgive her both her profession and her age as she did seem to be genuinely committed to helping John. Of course, it also didn't hurt that Rodney couldn't help but notice that she was fairly hot, in a clean-cut college girl sort of way.
"What I don't understand is that if the Zolon intended to enslave John as a punishment for entering their sacred ground, why would they also damage his brain in this manner?" Elizabeth was saying, her question dragging Rodney's mind back to the discussion at hand.
Rodney sighed in irritation and started to fidget in his chair - debriefings always seemed to be interminable, but this one was getting to be ridiculous. Rodney wanted nothing more than to be able to escape down to his lab and start work on the Ancient machine they'd managed to steal from Zolon, but instead he was being forced to sit through yet another run-down of what had happened on P4T-8RQ. The second lengthy discussion of the results of Carson and Keller's preliminary examination of John had been bad enough, but the current musings into the Zolon's motivations for abduction and torture were surely completely pointless. Across the table, Rodney met Ronon's gaze and rolled his eyes. Ronon nodded subtly in agreement, making Rodney feel slightly better about his own impatience. Although very different from one another in their areas of expertise, he and Ronon had always been of the same viewpoint when it came to belaboring the minutiae during meetings – they both infinitely preferred useful action over idle conjecture.
"From what the leader of the Zolon said when John was sentenced," Teyla replied. "I do not believe the device affected John in the same manner that it has done other Zolon prisoners. Indeed, Rodney," she continued, turning to look at him as she spoke, "you mentioned that John's gene might have been the reason for the unusual side-effects."
"Yes," Rodney snapped. "And if I could have some time to actually investigate the device, instead of just talking about it, I might be able to come up with more than just surface speculation."
"I understand your desire to get straight to work, Rodney," Elizabeth said, leaning forward to place a comforting hand on Rodney's arm. "But we need to be especially careful in how we proceed. Regardless of how the device works or what its original purpose might have been, it has left John with serious brain damage."
"Aye," Carson agreed, his blue eyes filled with concern as his gaze flicked from Elizabeth to Rodney. "The damage is quite extensive. I will need to do more scans and some tests of Colonel Sheppard's current mental abilities, but from what I've been able to determine so far, his temporal lobes have suffered the greatest impairment."
"Yes, yes, we get it," Rodney replied, irritated that they kept having to go over this. "Temporal lobes – speech, memory and hearing impairments. He's completely lost his ability to communicate orally and through writing. We were all there in the infirmary when you scanned him, you know. But what's wrong with him now is not the point, rather the point is what made him this way in the first place: how does it work and how do we get it to reverse what it did."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with his hearing, either," Ronon put in. "He seemed to hear everything just fine down on the planet – only trouble was he didn't understand anything we said 'til McKay turned up."
"Exactly," Rodney said, snapping his fingers once and pointing at Ronon before turning to scowl at Carson. "And his comprehension became even greater once we traveled through the gate and he was able to make use of the gate's translation system. So, you see, the solution is not in John's brain – it's in the device which is currently sitting in my lab and in that thing sticking out of the side of John's head."
"Be that as it may, Rodney," Carson replied. "The damage done to the Colonel's brain may well be permanent, regardless of whether or not we're able to remove the implant or figure out how the device works. We will need to work together on this, Rodney."
Rodney slumped back into his chair at Carson's words, trying to figure out the best way to proceed. Part of him wanted to continue ranting, to push his own belief that the answer lay in the cleanly cut lines of hard science – his forte - but he knew that he couldn't. There still existed, as painful as it might be for Rodney to admit, the small chance that Carson was right. And, loathe as he was to follow the messy and unpredictable dictates of the soft sciences, he did acknowledge that an investigation from both perspectives probably offered the best chance of success.
"Yes, alright, fine," he conceded at last. "But I'm going to need some time to investigate the device in my lab before we make any attempts to interface the device with John's implant. I also want to do a thorough trawl of the database to see if we can identify the device – perhaps even find some schematics of it, if we're lucky."
"Aye, that makes sense, Rodney," Carson said. "We're also going to need some more time to test the limits of the Colonel's current mental abilities and Jennifer here is going to see if she can get some clearer images of the affected regions of his brain. If we can actually map out the neural pathways compromised, we might even be able to re-generate some of the connections."
Rodney looked at Carson and Keller intently and then nodded slowly, grudgingly satisfied with the plan of action. "Alright," he said, turning to look at Elizabeth. "Okay?" he asked her, already half-way out of his seat.
"Yes, Rodney, okay," she replied with a small smile, waving him off. "Just be sure to keep me posted."
Rodney was within sight of his lab when he heard the sound of running footsteps behind him – two pairs. He sighed inwardly and then stopped abruptly, turning in place to meet his teammates approach with his chin upraised and his arms crossed.
"Yes, I'm okay; yes, I know it's going to be alright and no, you cannot help," he said quickly before Teyla could so much as open her mouth. "No, wait, scratch that last one," he amended. "You could get me some coffee, that would be very helpful - some of the good stuff, mind, not that swill they serve in the commissary."
Ronon ground to a halt in front of Rodney, his own arms coming up to cross over his chest in a mirror of Rodney's pose. He raised an eyebrow at Rodney.
"Please?" Rodney promptly tacked onto the end of his request upon recognizing the exact nature of the light in Ronon's eye.
Ronon grunted and uncrossed his arms. "Better, McKay," he said.
"Yes, well," Rodney replied by way of explanation. "I've got rather a lot on my mind at the moment."
Teyla shot Ronon an amused glance at his posturing before turning her attention back to Rodney. "Are you certain that there is nothing we can do, Rodney?" she asked, her concern palpable.
Rodney sighed again and shook his head. "I don't think there's much anyone can do until we know more about the device and the implant." He frowned then, recalling John's response to him in the infirmary, and felt the stirrings of an idea start to form. "Although," he continued slowly, "it might be a good idea for you guys to go see John. You know, talk to him, perhaps show him 'round the city, stuff like that."
"Try and remind him of his life here, you mean," Ronon said.
"Yes, exactly," Rodney replied. He shook his head and frowned again, "I just get the feeling that there is more going on in his brain than we can tell at the moment, despite what the scans might indicate."
Ronon turned to look at Teyla for a moment, seeking her agreement, before looking back to Rodney. "We can do that," he said with a grin.
"I'm sure you can," Rodney replied, rolling his eyes, already able to picture Ronon reacquainting John with the joys of the armory and the gym. "Just go easy on him, okay? Remember, he's operating with even less of his brain than he usually does."
"Of course we will, Rodney," Teyla reassured him, fixing Ronon with a stern eye. "You will let us know what you discover?"
"Yes, yes," Rodney replied, already waving them away. "Oh, and don't forget the coffee!" he shouted out as an after-thought. As he started to turn away to continue down the corridor he saw Ronon grin evilly over his shoulder and make what could only be some crude Satedan hand gesture at him.
"Lovely," Rodney commented quietly as he entered his lab, amused despite himself. His amusement didn't last long however, for there, sitting in the middle of one of the lab's large equipment tables, was the device the Zolons had used to rob John of his memories and his language. Rodney stared at it for a moment and wondered, not for the first time, how something so seemingly innocuous could be so very damaging.
"Ready to get to work, Rodney?" Radek asked from his position at the far side of the table, his box of tools already open and at the ready beside him.
"Yes," Rodney replied, taking off his jacket and slinging it onto a nearby chair before grabbing his own equipment, grateful for Radek's understanding that what he needed to do now was concentrate solely on his work. "Let's find out what makes this thing tick."
John waited patiently while Teyla and Ronon appeared to be arguing again. Well, not arguing per se so much as disagreeing what to do with him next. The urge to step in and make a decision for them was strong, but he let it simmer in the background. He had no idea where they were going or what they were proposing anyway. The conflict now was over Ronon's plan to take him to something called the armory. John relaxed against a wall and watched the by-play between the two people who had served as his guides all afternoon.
They'd appeared in the infirmary that afternoon, Teyla looking like an exotic dancer in a stitched leather bodice affair that showed off her taut abdomen and emphasized her dancer's grace when she moved. She seemed completely unaware of her innate hotness. Ronon looked dangerous, a sleeveless shirt showing off impressive muscles and bronzed skin decorated with tattoos. He had his dreds tied back behind his head; his bearded face was clean and looked less threatening than it had on the planet, but John could sense the underlying lethality of the man that was never far from the surface. It had made him wonder just what kind of relationship he had with these people and why they seemed to be so concerned about him.
That the doctors were concerned about his physical condition, he knew. Despite what the blue-eyed man named Carson thought, John's hearing was pretty good and he knew that both Carson and the pretty little girl named Jennifer thought that he was brain damaged. He recalled that Rodney thought he was brain damaged too but that this seemed to be a normal state as far as Rodney was concerned, so John recognized it as the friendly insult that it was. He didn't feel brain damaged. Maybe that was one of the symptoms. All he knew was that he could not access certain information. Since there seemed to be little he could do about that, he'd opted for absorbing as much new information as he could.
Which was why he'd been relieved when Ronon and Teyla apparently wanted to spring him from the infirmary. Yes. He was tired of being poked and prodded and having sympathetic looks shot in his direction. It had precipitated a first argument however. Ronon was all for just leaving, Teyla for informing the doctors and asking for permission to take John with them. They'd gone back and forth on the subject for a moment, before John had swung his feet off the bed where he'd been sitting and walked over to the two of them—taking each one by the hand and indicating the door with their clasped fists together.
Teyla had taken a sharp intake of breath and then beamed at him. Ronon had looked at him seriously for a long moment, an expression of intense pain crossing his face like the effects of the stunner blast and then he'd suddenly pulled John into a crushing embrace, lifting him slightly off the ground, his other arm pulled backwards, still in Teyla's grip. He'd made some gurgling noises and Ronon had abruptly let him go.
John had felt his eyebrow raise and his face twist as he'd looked at Ronon askance.
Ronon had let out a hearty laugh and clapped him on the shoulder with enough force that Teyla had to hold him up.
"Fine," Ronon had conceded, "I'll go tell the doc we're taking Sheppard out for a little air."
"Do you think you might confuse John by calling him 'Sheppard'?" Teyla had suggested in her calm way.
"Calling him John when I never call him John would confuse him more. He's not stupid, Teyla, just...scrambled."
"I never said he was...oh, that man," Teyla had groused in the general direction of Ronon's back as he'd crossed the infirmary for Carson's office. "Sometimes I think he needs a good...what is your word? Walloping." She'd looked at John suddenly and seemed to see something in his face, because her exasperated expression had faded and one of sweet concern had appeared in its place. "Don't mind Ronon. He had a very hard existence before coming to Atlantis and joining your team. He is one of a handful of survivors of his people and I think we've become like a family to him. You are a very important part of that family, John."
John had reached out and gently brushed the side of her face with his fingers. Teyla had blinked at him, her mouth trembling, as though she might start to cry. "Yes," she'd said with a watery smile, "You are part of my family as well."
She'd then taken him by the forearms and had tipped her head forward, as though bowing. She'd glanced up through her bangs at him and he'd suddenly realized he was supposed to bow back, coming forward himself until their foreheads brushed. He'd felt the small sigh she released at the gesture and was warmed by the smile he'd received on straightening again.
Family. He had family. Family seemed very important. Worth living for. Worth dying for. In his head though, he could not distinguish between the words family and team.
He'd wanted to ask where Rodney was, but had no way to convey that information. They'd instead taken him all over the city—on the balconies, where they stood looking down at the sea and feeling the warmth of the sun on their skin. To the gateroom and Elizabeth's office, where the slim, dark-haired woman in red and black had given him another one of those brittle smiles and he'd thought family, but recognized an enforced distance and did not know why it was there. He'd been in transporters and on the pier, down to the jumper bays and now was waiting for Ronon and Teyla to agree on where to take him next. He inspected his clothing while he listened to the argument, a tight black shirt with short sleeves, black pants, black boots. The clothing had been waiting for him after the last of his examinations in the infirmary. The watch he'd placed instinctively on the left wrist—he'd noted that the numbers within kept changing but did not know what that meant. The black fuzzy band he'd placed on his right wrist, frowning at it now as he wondered about its significance.
The wall behind him felt warm against his skin, like the sun on his face on the balcony, and it whispered to him of family and home.
"I hardly think Elizabeth would appreciate it if we taught John how to shoot," Teyla said somewhat sharply, and John gave the conversation his full attention again.
"He knows how to shoot on some level," Ronon countered. "This is about making sure he's safe around weapons—that he hasn't forgotten anything vital. Besides, shooting comes naturally to him, it's a memory we should try to trigger." Ronon grinned in a feral manner at Teyla for some reason and she rolled her eyes in response.
Teyla looked unconvinced, but Ronon continued on. "What's the first thing we teach our children?" he asked in a serious voice. "Fear the Wraith. Avoid their culling beams. Don't let them touch you. And as soon as we can, we teach them how to fire a weapon, to defend themselves. This is the world we live in, Teyla, not the world the Earthers know." He paused, glancing at John before turning back to Teyla again. "Taking me to the armory was one of the first things Sheppard did when I came here. It wasn't just about checking me out on the weapons. It was about trust."
"Very well," Teyla relented. "The two of you boys can go play in the armory while I set up the next experience. Meet me in the mess hall in one hour." Teyla glanced at the watch on her wrist as she spoke and John found himself doing the same, but it still didn't make any sense to him. She caught him doing so and she smiled.
She took him gently by the wrist and rotated his arm so they could both see the surface of the watch. "An hour is a unit of time. Your home planet has 24 hours in a day." He nodded at the word day; that he understood. "These little numbers here count seconds—60 seconds in one minute. These numbers here count minutes. 60 minutes in one hour. This number here, changes on the hour."
"You think he's actually going to follow that?" Ronon said skeptically, but John was nodding enthusiastically and tapping the surface of the watch. 3600 seconds in an hour. 86,400 seconds in a day. The beauty of the math pleased him. He looked up to see Teyla smiling at him with bright eyes.
"Go play with your toys," she said. "I will see about getting us some food."
John's stomach growled at her words and everyone laughed.
The armory had been great fun. Ronon had taken him into the secure facility and over to a table where a wide variety of weapons were displayed. He'd then gone through an explanation of safe use and handling, explaining the basics of gun safety before letting John pick up any of the weapons. Once he was satisfied that John was not going to accidentally kill someone, he'd hesitated over a set of ear muffs; John had gotten the impression that Ronon normally wouldn't wear them but didn't want to set a bad example as Ronon had put on a pair and indicated that John do the same. "So you won't be deaf in your rapidly advancing age, old man," Ronon had said jokingly.
Ear protectors. John had realized it as soon as the sound dampened around him and had grinned when the shooting began.
The weapons had felt natural and right in his hands; he'd recognized right away that the calluses formed previously were from a lifetime of holding such guns. He'd felt excited in a way that only sitting in the jumper had made him feel before—this was it, this was right, he was getting closer to who he really was. The shooting went on for some time; Ronon had even let him fire Ronon's energy pistol. John had gotten the feeling that was a great honor and he'd let his enthusiasm show on his face.
Just when he'd thought the session was coming to a close, Ronon pressed a switch under the table and a new target wheeled into sight—stopping at the shooting distance. Unlike the faceless paper targets from before, the figure was a detailed simulation of a person, but a person unlike one John could ever recall seeing before. The figure was dressed in a sweeping black coat, with long white hair and a pale, greenish complexion, mouth open in a snarl, fangs showing. A single hand was depicted reaching forward but there was no weapon in it.
John had looked at Ronon for an explanation. "This is a Wraith," he'd spat, the hatred rippling in his low growl. "The only good Wraith is a dead Wraith. You see one, you shoot it, before it kills you. They are hard to kill, so shoot it a lot. Understand?"
John had lifted the Beretta he'd been holding and emptied the clip into the center of the target, creating a large hole in the paper Wraith.
"Cool," Ronon had grinned.
That was the word John had been searching for. Cool.
Now they were sitting in a large, open room, filled with tables and chairs where people apparently came to eat as a group in this community. Sunlight poured in from great, patterned windows on one wall, the room also opened out onto a large balcony and the smell of the sea came in through the open doors, along with the faint cries of some small flying creatures that Teyla had identified as birds. The room was mostly empty now; the time for regular meals apparently long since over. It made the fact that food was still available all the more remarkable.
They were making their way steadily through a huge platter of turkey sandwiches, along with chips and salsa. Ronon had over-ruled Teyla's protest and produced a cold beer with an evil grin, but he'd agreed that John should only have one. It was without a doubt the best food that John had ever eaten and he'd eaten with enthusiasm, belching loudly as he pushed his nearly empty tray back.
Ronon and Teyla both laughed.
"Your people believe you should say 'excuse me' when you burp in public, John," Teyla said with a small giggle.
"Don't make a sissy out of him," Ronon complained. "He's free of all those stupid Earth rules now. He should be able to belch, fart or scratch his balls if he wants to now."
Ronon leaned back in his chair and scratched idly at his armpit, grinning at John all the while. John snickered and shot a glance at Teyla, who was looking thoughtful.
"Not all stupid Earth rules. There are some he should still obey." Whatever Teyla meant by that, Ronon seemed to get it. He stopped scratching and sat up abruptly, leaning forward to rest his arms along the table in front of him.
"You think he remembers that? That he and McKay...?"
Teyla shrugged elegantly. "I doubt it. We're not even supposed to know about it," she raised an eyebrow at Ronon. "I'm just saying it would be awkward for everyone if he suddenly displayed...a disregard for certain rules."
A thoughtful silence descended on the table for a moment. "Well, he's being pretty touchy-feely right now, for him. I'm betting we can get away with calling it the effects of the device if something happens."
Teyla nodded. "Particularly if we make it known, that John is...more openly affectionate than usual."
John tapped the tabletop and made a 'hello, sitting right here' gesture with his hand when they both looked at him.
"I kinda like him like this. It's kinda peaceful, you know?" Ronon grinned at him, even while ostensibly speaking to Teyla. "Who knows, maybe someone will listen to us on a mission for a change?"
"There will be no more missions with John unless we figure out how to restore his memories, Ronon," Teyla said, a note of concern and sadness creeping into her lovely voice. "They might not even let him remain in Atlantis."
John felt the city tremble with the impact of Teyla's words.
"Why would they send him back to Earth? It's not like they're any better equipped to deal with his problems than we are."
Teyla just shook her head, her coppery hair brushing her shoulders with the movement. "He's military. He will have to follow their orders—if they choose to send him back to Earth, Elizabeth will have no choice but to send him. And they will assign someone else to his position here."
"Someone who won't trust us," Ronon growled and then sighed. "McKay will have a cow."
The image of a large black and white bovine creature calmly chewing its cud sprang to mind, but John had no idea why Rodney would want one.
You must stay. We need you. John looked up at the ceiling of the room trying to figure out exactly where the words were coming from. Stay, the city pleaded. We need you.
A small woman burdened with a tray of food walked past their table. She had long, dark hair swept up into a bun and on her face wore heavy, black goggles...no, glasses. She gave them a weak smile in passing and Teyla called out. "Miko, would you care to join us?"
"Oh!" The woman looked startled and painfully pleased at the same time. "Oh no, thank you, but this is not for me." She looked down at the tray, heavily laden with fruits and vegetables as well as several large muffins and a steaming pot of something that smelled heavenly and reminded John of the tik-tik. "I am taking a tray to Dr. McKay. He is working very hard down in the lab, trying to determine the secrets of the Ancient device that has affected...um, the Colonel," she finished off with embarrassment, glancing briefly at John. "I know that he will not rest until he finds an answer and he cannot think without food."
John uncoiled himself from the table and stood looking down at the tray that Miko held. Something was missing...but what? He glanced back over at the table and snagged one of the few remaining turkey sandwiches, laying it on the plate beside the banana. Nope. That wasn't it. With a finger snap, he picked up the two containers of pudding he'd selected but for some reason hadn't eaten and then felt satisfied when he set them on the tray. And then he took the tray from Miko and looked at her expectantly.
"Oh dear!" Miko squeaked and looked to Teyla for guidance.
"John," Teyla and Ronon were standing now as well. "Would you like to take Rodney this tray of food?"
John gave a little nod and tipped his head questioningly towards the door.
"Let's go then," Ronon smirked.
John heard Rodney well in advance of their approach to the lab. "No, no, no," Rodney's voice had a particularly carrying quality, especially now, as he sounded enraged. "That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. We can't simply allow that woman to rip out the implant—it has to be disconnected, properly. Otherwise, who knows what more damage could occur. It's like...like not properly ejecting a flash drive from a USB port!"
He paused at the doorway to the lab, Ronon, Teyla and Miko stopping with him. Inside, Rodney was stalking around the large room, pulling at his hair with both hands so that it stood up in small, angry tufts. "We've got to find the answers in either the main device itself or the database before Carson and that Doogie Howser woman do something incredibly stupid to John."
Several scientists in white coats sat with their heads bowed over their workstations, studiously not looking at Rodney. A small, frazzled-looking man with glasses and an exasperated expression looked startled by their entrance and sat up straighter, pushing his glasses up his nose.
Behind him, Teyla cleared her throat. Rodney turned sharply in their direction and then his mouth fell open in charming stupefaction.
"John wanted to bring you some food," Teyla said encouragingly, giving John a little push into the room.
"He stole the idea from Miko," Ronon volunteered, earning a brilliant smile from Miko and a dirty look from John.
"Oh. Well. That's incredibly nice...of both of you," Rodney added belatedly, coming forward as John set the tray down on the nearest surface, pushing aside some papers that Rodney hastily rescued.
"It is good to see you up and about, Colonel," the man with the glasses took them off to polish them, smiling at John as he replaced them on his nose. "Cat still got your tongue?"
John stuck his tongue out of his mouth and looked down at it with eyes crossing in an attempt to see what the other man had meant. "My apologies," the other man laughed, "it is a phrase, no? One that indicates you are speechless." He had an interesting cadence to his speech pattern that was different from everyone else's and not similar to the lilt of Carson's voice either.
"Way to go, Radek," Rodney sneered. "Confuse the man with idioms."
"Pity the cat did not get your tongue, Rodney," Radek said tartly, "then we might all be able to concentrate on our work." He tipped his head sideways to peer at the implant in John's head, even as Rodney sputtered in the background.
He was reaching forward to touch the implant even as John was leaning instinctively away when Rodney pushed in between the two of them and barked out, "Don't touch him!"
Radek's hand froze mid-air and everyone turned to look at Rodney. He was reaching out to block Radek, his sharp, blue eyes snapping with anger and something else as well. Protectiveness. John recognized it in every line of Rodney's body, in the way he'd suddenly moved in between Radek and himself. Carefully, he placed a hand on Rodney's shoulder and felt Rodney startle beneath his touch. Rodney whipped his head around to look into his eyes and John felt that sense of remembrance, of connection again.
Rodney flushed red from the neck up and began to stammer. "I...it's just...the implant, I touched the implant back on the planet and I nearly killed him." He looked woefully embarrassed and ashamed at the same time.
John gave him a little pat on the shoulder and then pulled him into a hug. He turned his nose into Rodney's neck and took in a deep breath of his scent, feeling that this too was right and familiar. Rodney felt stiff and frozen in his arms and then John could tell the moment the thaw began, felt Rodney shift and relax against his body.
Miko squeaked from her corner.
"Yeah," Ronon drawled. "He's been doing that. Weird, huh? Must be the implant."
Teyla made a choking noise of agreement.
Rodney suddenly stiffened again and with rigid arms, pushed John back. "Yes, right. Implant. Of course." He locked his gaze with John's as he spoke and John saw hurt and loss briefly reflected in them before their focus sharpened. Rodney suddenly snapped his fingers in a rapid staccato. "Wait, wait, wait," he said, moving away from John to stalk around the room in a small circle.
He stopped to point at John. "The implant. You might be on to something, Ronon. The implant does not seem to be part of the original design, even though the materials seem Ancient in origin. I'm betting this was part of the modifications the Zolon made when they began using the device for themselves. The implant could be what's suppressing his memories."
"All the more reason to allow Carson and Dr. Keller to remove the implant," Radek argued.
"The biological trauma that could occur by surgically removing an implant that is affecting his temporal lobes is not acceptable," Rodney snapped. "The Zolon are not that sophisticated. They didn't have a team of surgeons implant the bloody thing, now did they? No, the implant must have an on/off switch. We just need more time to find it."
"Forty-eight hours, Rodney," Carson's distinctive accent came from the doorway behind them. "I'll give ye forty-eight hours. After that, we must consider primary removal if we have any hopes of restoring the Colonel to a more functional state. Our scans indicate the longer he remains this way, the less likely he is to regain normal speech again. And now, Colonel," Carson entered the room and gently took him by the arm. "If you would come with me? We need you back at the infirmary again."
John looked over his shoulder at his friends, Rodney looking back at him with dismay. A surge of resistance welled up in him suddenly and then he allowed himself to be drawn away. These people were trying to help him. He knew that. But he'd rather have stayed with Rodney.
Rodney watched as John was led out of his lab, seeing the glance of regret he shot Ronon, Teyla and Rodney himself, and felt torn. He desperately wanted to accompany John to the infirmary, but Carson's ultimatum now weighed heavily on his mind. He wasn't sure why he was so certain, but he just knew that the cure for John wasn't to be found by the simple removal of the implant. Actually, truth be told, he was no longer certain it could even be found in the device itself.
Rodney turned his head to look over at the device, now spread out in pieces over the large worktable, each one annotated in great detail so as to record its connection to the device as a whole and its likely role its operation, and let out a huff of frustration. While John had been on his tour with Teyla and Ronon, Rodney and Radek had not been idle. They'd spent hours carefully dissecting the device, working out how it was powered and its connections, drawing up detailed schematics and then combing the Ancient database for any indication of what its original purpose might have been. For all the good it had done them. Rodney shook his head, they were still not anywhere near knowing how to reverse the effects of the device than they had been when they'd started. He understood why Radek had been on Carson's side, supporting the removal of the implant – they needed a new avenue to explore - but he still didn't like the idea, John's cry of pain when Rodney had touched the implant down on the planet all too vivid in his mind. He was vaguely aware of Radek muttering something about setting up another search of the database and waved him off with an distracted air, his mind still very much on John.
Still deep in thought, Rodney reached out a hand to grab the cup of coffee from the tray John had brought. As he did so, he spotted the two pudding cups, one chocolate and one vanilla, sitting side-by-side on the tray. He smiled at the sight, familiar from the countless times he'd seen them sit there, just like that, on John's tray every time he and John had lunch together, just waiting for Rodney to steal. The sight of them now buoyed Rodney's flagging spirits – it was, after all, yet more proof that John really was still himself and even if he didn't yet explicitly recall things, at least some part of his subconscious remembered.
"He was very keen to see you, Rodney," Teyla said softly, coming to stand next to him as he continued to stare down at the pudding cups. "It seems you were right."
"Of course I was," he answered automatically, before he had a chance to process her words thoroughly. "Oh," he said, looking up at her with interest. "It went well then? The tour?"
"Very well," Ronon replied with a huge grin. "He's still a crack shot."
"What?!" Rodney squawked. "Oh my god - you really did it, didn't you? You took him to the armory."
"And the shooting range," Ronon added, sounding very satisfied with John's prowess with a gun, his mental disabilities notwithstanding. "He'll handle himself with no problem against the Wraith."
"Please, tell me you are joking," Rodney said, looking up at Ronon in horror. "He is not going anywhere near the Wraith in his current condition!"
"Of course not, Rodney," Teyla intercepted quickly, shooting Ronon a narrow-eyed look. "But it is heartening, is it not? That John appears to be remembering so much about his life here, even if he is not yet3 able to express himself in any other way but with his actions." She glanced meaningfully down at the pudding cups as she spoke, and then looked up at Rodney, tilting her head to one side and raising an expressive eyebrow.
Rodney felt his face heat at her regard, recalling the warm press of John's body against his as John had held him close. "Yeah, uh..." he stumbled, his mind whirring with the knowledge that Teyla and Ronon weren't really supposed to know about him and John, even though they obviously did. He forced himself to study their faces, trying to ignore his own embarrassment in favor of gauging his teammates reaction to his less than legal relationship with their team leader. "Ah, so, you... ah... you guys know about John and..." he trailed off uncomfortably.
"Don't sweat it, McKay," Ronon said, rolling his eyes and reaching out to clap his hand solidly against Rodney's shoulder. "You people sure do have some dumb ideas about what's right and wrong."
"I... ah... yes," Rodney stuttered, wincing slightly and rubbing his shoulder at the force of Ronon's apparent approval. "Um, thanks then, for that," he said, waving his hand awkwardly and feeling his flush deepen.
Teyla smiled up at him, her eyes soft. "You are most welcome; you know that."
"Rodney?" Radek's soft inquiry as he re-entered the room brought Rodney's mind back to the task at hand. "We should get back to work, yes?"
"Yes, we'd better," he agreed, turning back to the work table and blinking swiftly in an effort to get his mind back on track.
"We will see you later, Rodney," Teyla said, her hand coming to rest briefly on his shoulder and squeezing gently before disappearing.
"Later, McKay," Ronon echoed as he and Teyla left the lab.
"Later," Rodney echoed distractedly. "Right," he said, clapping his hands together and looking up at Radek. "Now that we've taken this thing apart, lets see if we can put it back together again, shall we?"
Three hours later saw the device re-assembled and sitting once more in pristine condition in the center of the work table. Radek and Rodney sat next to each other, both scowling darkly at it.
"Well, that went well," Rodney remarked sarcastically.
"It is most perplexing," Radek agreed.
"Yes, perplexing, infuriating, and damn near impossible!" Rodney snapped, rising to his feet in his indignation. "I mean, how on Earth is such a thing supposed to work, anyway?" He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, before continuing. "I mean, I think we've got a reasonable hypothesis as to how it causes the damage it inflicts, but there's absolutely no indication of how to reverse the procedure."
"Rodney?" Radek started to say cautiously. "Perhaps that is because-"
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney interrupted, feeling resigned all of a sudden. "Because it's not supposed to..." He trailed off, shaking his head. "Damn stupid Ancients and their damn stupid devices," he muttered under his breath and trying to not give in to the feelings of failure that were already threatening.
"And what's the purpose of this transmission relay?" he asked aloud, waving his hands towards the device in frustration and trying to distract himself with the mysteries as yet unsolved. "Is the device supposed to network with something, I wonder? Perhaps connect to a computer to direct the level of the impairment? But, no," he continued, contradicting himself almost immediately. "The targeting mechanism is part of the device itself, so that can't be it..." He trailed off, frowning down at the machine, lost in thought.
"I don't know, Rodney," Radek said tiredly. "We've been working for hours; we should go inform Dr. Beckett of our findings so far and then get some rest before we continue."
Rodney sighed, scrubbing a hand over his tired eyes as he did so. "Yes," he admitted, moving to pick up his laptop and placing it under one arm. "As much as it pains me to say it, you're right - we should go see Carson." He turned towards the door, pausing briefly to usher Radek out ahead of him with a wave of his free hand. "But don't think I'm done with this," he declared, stabbing a finger in the direction of the device. "There's got to be a reason the device was designed to connect to an Ancient CPU, and I'm going to figure it out."
Radek's only response was a grunt and they made their way to the infirmary in thoughtful silence. As they drew closer, Rodney felt his stomach start to knot – the anticipation of seeing John warring with the lack of progress into reversing the effects of the device he'd have to report. They approached the final stretch of corridor and were within sight of the infirmary doors when they slid open and Major Lorne appeared.
"Hey, docs," he said as he came down the corridor towards them. Even though his greeting was pleasant, the strain he was feeling was obvious from both his expression and in the rigidity of his shoulders. "Any news?" he asked, coming to a halt beside them.
Rodney and Radek exchanged a quick glance, coming to the silent agreement that the corridor was not really the best place to admit that they were not actually any closer to curing the CO of Atlantis.
"We have made some progress," Radek replied cautiously, removing his glasses and polishing the lenses with his sleeve as he spoke. "We were just going to talk to Dr Beckett; perhaps you could accompany us, Major?"
"No can do, I'm afraid, doc," Lorne replied. "We've a team due back in from P3M-T57 in a couple of hours and the paperwork is already backing up on the Colonel's desk. I'm sure he's done this on purpose 'cause he knows it's performance review time." Lorne grinned ruefully in the direction of the infirmary doors as he finished.
"How's he doing?" Rodney asked before he could stop himself, his eyes following the direction of Lorne's gaze as if he could see John through the doors themselves.
Lorne shrugged and glanced to the infirmary again quickly before looking back to Rodney. "Not too bad, I guess," he replied a little uncertainly. "I mean, I know he can't talk and all, and he doesn't seem to remember a lot of stuff, but he still seems to be himself, you know? It's like he still understands stuff and I'm sure he knew what I was talking about. Does that sound crazy to you?"
Rodney felt a flood of relief rush through him at Lorne's words – certain now that the conclusions he and the rest of John's team had come to were actually based in reality, as opposed to mere wishful thinking. "No," he said. "No, that doesn't sound crazy – whatever the device did to him, it didn't completely erase his mind, just... made it hard for him to access certain aspects of himself."
"Well, that's a relief," Lorne said, something in his stance relaxing a little at Rodney's words. He reached out and clapped Rodney on the shoulder. "Besides, he's got you guys on the case – I'm sure you'll have him right as rain in no time."
"Yes, well, that is the plan," Rodney replied, letting his determination and his belief in his ability color his words.
"That's good to hear, doc," Lorne said, a smile now tugging at his features. Suddenly a click sounded and Lorne got a vague, distracted look in his eyes as his radio crackled into life. "Lorne here... yeah...Well, bring 'em home asap... No... Okay... Right, I'm on my way," he snapped the connection closed, already starting to make his way down the corridor at a run. "Sorry, duty calls," he called out over his shoulder as he went. "And anytime you wanna get the Colonel back to fighting condition will be fine by me!"
As Lorne disappeared around the bend of the corridor, Radek turned to look at Rodney with a strange expression on his face.
"What?" Rodney demanded irritably; he was getting quite fed up with all... well, all the fond looks he'd been receiving of late "Come on, out with it," he insisted at Radek's continued silence, turning to glare at him. "What's wrong?"
Radek tilted his head to one side, regarding Rodney intently before shrugging his shoulders. "Nothing is wrong, Rodney," he said with a small smile. "It is just... good, to see you like this."
"Like what, exactly?" Rodney demanded, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Radek's smile broadened. "Like you have something to fight for – something more than pure science and your own life, that is."
Rodney could only look at Radek in stunned silence while he assimilated the implications of his remark. First Teyla and Ronon, and now Radek; he swallowed heavily, unsure of how to respond. "Um..."
Radek merely gestured towards the door to the infirmary. "After you, Rodney," he said meekly, smiling at Rodney far too innocently.
John looked up the moment Rodney and Radek entered the infirmary, his gaze locking on to Rodney's immediately. For a moment it looked almost as if John was going to pull free of the various wires connected to the mess of electrodes stuck to his head and approach Rodney, but his obvious impulse was curbed by the hand Keller quickly placed on his forearm to hold him still. Following the direction of John's attention, Keller turned and smiled at Rodney and Radek, ushering them closer with a wave of her free hand.
"Come over here before he breaks loose entirely," she said, her eyes sparkling with humor. "It took me ages to get these electrodes attached to his scalp through his hair and I've only just started removing them - I don't want him breaking loose quite yet."
"Hmm," Rodney grunted. "I'm surprised he let you anywhere near his hair with all that stuff."
Keller laughed. "He was a little wary at first," she admitted. "I had to promise him that I had absolutely no intention of cutting it." Her expression turned serious then. "We've been taking some EEG readings – trying to get a more precise idea of the location of the damage."
"Ah, Rodney, Radek," Carson said, approaching them, a data pad clasped in his hand and his eyes bright with hope. Rodney swallowed hard. "You've good news, I hope. What have you been able to discover?"
"Well," Rodney began, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. "We've managed to get to grips with most of what the device does - from what we can tell, it works by implanting its electrodes directly into a person's brain and then applying a low level current which presumably shorts out the neural pathways specified – something akin to a stroke, I imagine."
"Aye," Carson said, nodding slowly. "That does seem reasonable."
"And it would explain both the damage we've seen and the EEG readings," Keller added, her eyes flicking up to the myriad of images of John's brain currently being displayed on the infirmary's main computer screen. "But why would anyone want to do such a thing? Is punishment truly its purpose?"
"I don't think so," Rodney replied. "I mean, I know the Ancients were involved with some quite way out experiments, but nothing we've seen so far would suggest that they were engaged in corporal punishment – especially not something of this magnitude."
"Could it be a weapon then?" Carson asked. "Something they used against the Wraith perhaps?"
"No – definitely not; of that we can be sure," Rodney said. "Not only is Wraith physiology significantly different from our own, but the device is also programmed to detect the presence of the ATA-gene. Now, obviously the Zolon have gotten it to work on non-ATA carriers, but I believe that it was originally designed for use on the Ancients themselves."
"So, we have made some progress understanding how the device works," Radek continued, picking up Rodney's thread. "Like Rodney said, it is certainly Ancient technology, but we have not been able to find mention of it in the Ancient database, so we don't know what its original purpose might have been." He paused, looking over at Rodney.
Rodney rolled his eyes and continued imparting the bad news himself. "And we have likewise been unable to determine how the device can be used to undo the effects it causes." He took another deep breath, his eyes flicking to John briefly, who sat watching Rodney closely, and forced out the rest of it. "In fact, we've had to come to the conclusion that the device was simply not designed to do such a thing."
John's head tilted to one side at Rodney's words, his brow creasing in confusion. His behavior seemed to indicate that he had understood what Rodney had said, but that he was nevertheless far from convinced that his situation was completely hopeless. Rodney found himself smiling slightly at John's characteristic endless supply of optimism. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the others in the room. At John's side, Rodney was aware that Keller had raised a hand to her mouth to cover her soft gasp. Even though he'd known what was coming, Radek was wringing his hands together nervously at Rodney's side and even Carson looked horrified.
"Are you quite sure, Rodney?" Carson asked.
Rodney rolled his eyes again. "No, I just enjoy crushing everyone's hope for the hell of it - of course I'm sure!" he snapped. "However," he continued firmly, raising a finger to emphasize his point. "That does not mean that the situation is hopeless. There still one aspect of the device that confuses me."
"Something that might point to a cure?" Carson asked.
Rodney shook his head slowly, thinking hard. "Not a cure per se, at least not that the device itself could administer, but still... It's just something odd, that's all." He sighed again and started pacing around the infirmary, trying to puzzle out what the device's interface with an Ancient computer core could possibly mean. In the background, he was vaguely aware that Radek was explaining this unexplained aspect of the device to Keller and Carson, but was far too engrossed in considering the problem himself to pay them much mind.
The touch of a hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present and he turned to see John, apparently now free of the clutches of the EEG machine, standing beside him with a concerned look on his face.
"Oh," Rodney said, somewhat stupidly. "Hey."
John raised an eyebrow in response, and then tilted his head to the door of the infirmary, a slightly mischievous glint in his eye. Rodney turned back to the others to see them all in deep discussion. He looked back at John and felt a grin starting to spread over his face.
"So, the pier?" he suggested quietly, forgetting completely for a moment that John was unable to answer. It all felt so wonderfully familiar – no different to all those times in the past when one of them had busted the other out of the infirmary, both heading quickly for the quiet of the east pier where they could relax together and hang out.
John didn't reply verbally, of course, but his smile convinced Rodney that he knew exactly what Rodney was talking about.
Rodney felt a small twinge of guilt not long after he and John had made their escape from the infirmary, so he radioed Carson to let him know that he'd taken John on another outing. Carson was reluctant at first to grant his permission for the excursion, citing the fact that John had already been out of the infirmary that day with Ronon and Teyla. Rodney had his mouth open, ready to launch into his rebuke, when he heard Keller's soft tones in the background through the radio connection, convincing Carson that, provided it wasn't for too long, there was no real danger in John being out for a few more hours.
"It may even do him good," Rodney heard her say, garnering his immediate respect with her straight-forward and sensible approach. "Especially if Rodney were to do something with the Colonel that might trigger his memories."
For a moment, Rodney was thoroughly distracted by her words – a myriad of images of him and John doing things together assailing his mind. He felt his eyes glaze and one of his hands started to reach out towards John of its own volition. They were still in the main tower, so as soon as Rodney noticed what he was doing, he pulled his hand back quickly, trying his hardest to turn his mind to other things. That was, until he noticed John's expression. John was once again watching Rodney's reaction closely, a strangely open and almost yearning expression on his face. Their eyes met and for a moment all Rodney could do was stare longingly at John, aware that he was probably giving far too much of himself away with his expression, but unable to do anything about it. To see John, who was normally so controlled, in what seemed to be the same situation as Rodney was himself - his expression completely unguarded and full of longing - was thrilling. Rodney found himself reaching out again, gasping as this time his hand was met by John's, their fingers meshing and intertwining.
Suddenly there came the sound of loud footsteps and raised voices from the corridor up ahead of them. The noise succeeded in breaking the spell between them, and both John and Rodney pulled away from each other at once. Rodney watched in fascination as John responded to the potential threat just as he always had, one hand reaching down to his non-existent thigh-holster and the other reaching up for his equally non-existent radio. He paused when he found neither, his brow creasing in confusion as he looked down at his hands, as if wondering why he'd felt the impetus to act as he had. By this time, Rodney's own training had kicked into gear and he was reaching for his radio when one of the off-world teams appeared around the corner, their faces streaked with mud and their weapons still out as if they'd run into some action.
Rodney frowned as he watched them approach; they were several levels below the gateroom and the only thing on this level was a set of auxiliary science labs. It was then that he noticed that both Major Lorne and Esposito were with the team – Lorne was taking the mission report from the team's leader, a marine Rodney couldn't identify, while Esposito was deep in discussion with Morris, the team's scientist. Both scientists had their scanners out, gesturing at tapping away on them while they walked.
"Is there a problem?" Rodney asked as the team drew level with them.
Both Lorne and Esposito looked up at Rodney's questions, Lorne's eyes flicking briefly to John before returning to Rodney. "Dr McKay, Sir," he greeted each of them in turn, his stance straightening to attention as he nodded to his CO. Behind him, Rodney saw the military members of the team likewise snap to attention upon spotting John. "No problem; I've got this covered. SGA-5 just ran into a touch of bother with the locals on P3M-T57."
Rodney's eyes took in the weapons the marines were holding, the casing of which appeared to be fatigued and corroding. "Did they use some sort of chemical on you?" he asked.
"Not as far as we know, sir," the team's leader replied. "We high-tailed it out of there as soon as they launched their attack; only noticed the damage after we'd gated back."
"Hmm," Rodney said, eyeing the damage, his mind already whirring through the possibilities. What could cause that type of damage – acidity, some type of microbe, perhaps even a biological weapon of some sort. "Well, at least the city's quarantine procedures haven't activated, so whatever caused the damage can't be too harmful." He sighed and looked at John regretfully, cursing more than ever the fact that this wasn't something they could handle together – not with John in his present condition. He'd just have to drop John back at the infirmary before heading back down to work on the latest crisis. Well, there was really nothing for it. Steeling himself, he turned to Lorne.
"Okay then," he said. "You're heading to one of the auxiliary labs?"
"Yes," Esposito said. "We thought we'd use one of them because the main labs are all fully booked at the moment."
"Right, okay. Carry on and get started," Rodney said. "I'm going to accompany Colonel Sheppard back to the infirmary and then I'll be back. There's a mark two scanner in the largest lab on this level – start there."
Esposito and Morris nodded at Rodney's orders, but Lorne looked at him closely, his eyes moving to John and then back to Rodney. "Hey, doc," he said. "I don't think there's anything to worry about quite yet. Like you said, the quarantine's not sounded, so the city doesn't think there's anything up and you've got your hands full already. I'm sure Esposito and Morris can handle the preliminary investigation and I'll keep an eye on my guys while they do so. We'll give you a shout if anything turns up."
"Don't worry, we can certainly handle conducting the initial scans, Dr. McKay," Esposito rushed to reassure him. "And we can report our findings in full at the lab meeting tomorrow."
Rodney nodded slowly, shooting a fleeting glance towards John, who was watching the interplay with quiet concentration. "Okay, carry on," he said, waving a hand. "And you can consider this part of your performance review," he called out after them as they started to make their way towards the labs.
Grateful that he didn't have to abandon John and his problem in favor of a different crisis, Rodney turned back to him. "It never ends, does it?" he said, shooting him a grin.
But John didn't seem to be paying attention to Rodney anymore. Like Rodney, he'd turned to watch the group head to the labs, but now had his eyes squeezed closed and looked almost as if he was in pain.
"Hey," Rodney said, drawing close to John again in concern. "John, are you okay?"
John's eyes opened at Rodney's words, but instead of the recognition Rodney had come to expect in John's expression, his eyes now reflected nothing but deep confusion. John's eyelids flickered quickly and he started to sway on his feet, one of his hands coming up to hover over the implant in his temple. Rodney reached out, intending to help steady him, but John had started to move, turning away from Rodney to stare intently at something on the wall ahead of them. Moving so that he could see whatever it was that had John so enraptured, Rodney was surprised to find that all he was faced with was a completely unremarkable stretch of Ancient wall paneling. Turning back to John, Rodney found that he'd closed his eyes again, his head tilted to one side as if he were trying discern a very faint noise. Very slowly, John brought up a hand, placing it carefully palm down on the wall.
"John?" Rodney said again softly. "Please, you have to tell me what's wrong." He reached out and this time succeeded in touching John, placing his hand gently on John's shoulder.
John's eyes flickered open at the contact and he stepped away from the wall, turning his head to look at Rodney. To Rodney's relief, his expression once again seemed to be focused. He shook his head slowly and shrugged, pointing a finger towards his ear and then holding his hand out open as if trying to explain that he'd thought he'd heard something, but couldn't explain what it was. He then reached his hand up so that he could cover Rodney's hand, the one that was still resting on his shoulder, with his own.
"Okay," Rodney said, removing his hand from John's shoulder, taking John's hand with it and then giving in to the impulse to twine their fingers together again. "I think we should probably head back to the infirmary."
John nodded slowly in reply, squeezing Rodney's hand tightly as he did so.
The lack of ability to communicate was really starting to frustrate John. Ever since he'd become aware of his current existence, not being able to speak was simply the way he was, a fact of life. But now, for the first time, his inability to articulate his thoughts and emotions gnawed at him.
They'd had him change into some sort of lightweight clothing this time, the kind of thing you'd wear to sleep in, but he noticed that several of the personnel were wearing similar outfits so he figured that it had to do with being in the infirmary. Whatever the purpose behind the red pajama set, he realized they did not intend to let him out of the infirmary again today. He found himself irritably smacking away Keller's hands when she helped him back to bed, replacing the monitoring devices on his body.
"My," she said archly, "someone is cranky. I think maybe you've stayed up too long past your bedtime."
He wasn't sure exactly what sort of look he'd given her but she suddenly backpedaled and held up a hand in peace. "I'm sorry, Colonel Sheppard, but I really do think you need to rest now. It's been a long day for you, don't you think?"
He sighed and nodded, acquiescing quietly to her ministrations and lying back on the pillow. She gave his arm a gentle squeeze, causing him to look up at her.
"Don't worry, Colonel. I've been in Pegasus long enough to know that Rodney McKay is a very determined man when it comes to problem solving. I'm sure he'll find a way to fix things. In the meantime, get some rest and when you wake I'll see about sending someone to get you some dinner." She moved off with a smile.
He watched her go, feeling his eyelids drooping with fatigue and relaxing into the soft, sweet-smelling bedding. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept in a so nice a bed and unbidden an image came into his mind—he was in a room with a clean, white light pouring in from open windows, a sea breeze lifting billowing curtains playfully, a warm body curled against his side. He could feel the heavy weight of someone's arm across his chest, the fingers that moved lazily against his bare skin, the leg that pushed in-between his own, toes curling and unfurling sleepily. If he closed his eyes, he could feel the interested push of a slowly awakening cock against his ass and the answering warmth it roused in him. He knew the hand that was warm and inquiring against his skin, knew the scent of the person behind him and recognized the feel of the skin beneath his own hands.
It was Rodney.
He was jolted into wakefulness by the sound of voices around him.
"Easy now, laddie," Carson was saying in that delightful accent that somehow reminded John of home in ways he did not understand. John turned his head and saw Carson directing a medical technician who was assisting him in helping a patient into the bed next to John.
The young man had the bearing and haircut that spoke to John of military, he looked a bit banged up, but not too seriously injured. His arm was bandaged and there was bruising on his face. He acknowledged John with weary eyes, starting to sit up straighter and bring his hand up in a sketchy sort of gesture towards John, but Carson forestalled him. "The Colonel won't mind if you don't salute him this time, lad," he said soothingly.
"Yeah, the Colonel's like that," the young man agreed with a goofy sort of grin on his face. "He'll cut you all kinds of slack on stuff he doesn't think is important, but woe be unto you if you screw up on something he does think's important." The soldier's words started to slur a little. "Your ass is grass if you don't protect the geeks on your team and he's the motherfucking lawnmower." The soldier gave John a cheerful nod.
Carson made a sort of choking noise and shot a look full of amusement in John's direction. John responded with a 'who me?' gesture because really, what the hell was a 'geek'?
"There now, son," Carson was saying to the soldier in the bed next to John. "You get some rest."
The young man yawned widely and closed his eyes.
"Everything alright then, Colonel?" Carson turned to John with a tired smile.
He rolled his palm where it lay across his lap, lifting a couple of fingers upward in a sort of mini-shrug, trying to convey, 'not too bad for a guy who can't remember much'. Carson just nodded as though he'd understood.
"You get some rest too, Colonel," Carson said with mock sternness. "That's an order."
John knew that orders were something he was supposed to obey, but thought perhaps Carson was making fun of him for some reason. He wished that Rodney or Teyla or Ronon were around. Things seemed to make more sense when they were there.
He positively itched to be doing something, anything but lie there in bed when he no longer felt sleepy. He was tired, exhausted really, by the constant barrage of new input into his brain. He could feel a pull, a soporific request from some part of his mind, urging him to forget all that he'd learned, that it really wasn't important, that it was holding him back.
Holding him back from what?
The pull on his mind subsided, as though it couldn't bear direct scrutiny.
Instead, he became aware of a murmuring at the back of his mind, whisper-soft like the sounds of the sea coming through his open windows in the room of his memory. As he concentrated, the noise began to swell, to take form. It was an orchestra of sensation: music thrumming through his veins, with mathematics providing a high, clear counterpoint, and ten thousand years of stars just within his reach and the brush of fingers against his brow.
He shivered at the feelings that ran though him. Too much. Not enough. Like being just on the edge of orgasm but not quite there. Reaching for it, feeling the tension build, climbing like the car of a rollercoaster approaching the top of the hill, knowing the ecstatic release was almost there...
Come to us.
The voice in his head was as clear as the welcome he'd received on his arrival in the city and it felt both right and wrong at the same time.
Please. We need you.
There was no such thing as need, his mind insisted. There was only being. There was only this, the days that he could remember; there was nothing else. He needed to let go, to fly away, to embrace the nothingness.
We need your help.
Something within him flicked to attention at the plea. He felt another pull, stronger, more insistent this time, as a flood of memories rushed back into him—small glimpses into another life, as seen through a camera's lens, illuminated in brief, lightening flashes of insight. He and Rodney sitting together on the edge of the pier in the moonlight. Laughing with his family over something silly said at breakfast in the mess hall. Rodney's hands providing a stage show to accompany whatever explanation he was giving with excitement. Teyla circling him in a small workout room, short rods in her hands, a feral smile on her face as she moved to attack as though she were inviting John to dance. Ronon, crouched behind a tree, rain soaking through the canopy overhead to darken his clothes as he turned to John and signaled how many enemy combatants they faced. Rodney, a smear of blood on his face from several small cuts, as though from flying glass, frantically working over a console and shouting over his shoulder, "I need just a few more minutes!"
John jerked awake again, to find himself surrounded by the quiet sounds of the infirmary at rest, the lights dimmed, the machinery a soft hum, not unlike the noise in his head. The soldier in the opposite bed was asleep. The need to be up and moving was a physical force that John could no longer deny.
He started to toss back the covers and swing out of bed before he realized he was still attached to some sort of machine. He began pulling at the wires connected to the sticky pads on his forehead. An alarm immediately sounded and John quickly slapped the pad back on his skin, lying down and closing his eyes. He sensed someone coming partway into the room to check on him and breathed a sigh of relief when they did nothing more than give him a cursory glance before leaving again.
Thinking furiously, John waited a few minutes and briefly detached the pads again. As before, the person on duty came into the room, but this time she came over to the machine and checked the settings, grumbling slightly under her breath all the way. John watched her through half-slit eyelids as she fussed with the machine and then after she left, he slowly counted to 100 and disturbed the pads again.
This time the medtech came stomping into the room with a huff. After checking the machine again, she leaned over John to check the pads themselves, pressing one gently against his forehead, making sure it was placed properly, he guessed.
The next time he fiddled with the pads, she did not come. The alarm shut off within thirty seconds of his replacing the pads. He counted to 500, and then rapidly rolled out of bed, slapping the pads on the forehead of the man sleeping in the next bed and holding his breath as he waited.
No one came.
With a grin he gathered his other clothing and silently padded out of the room on bare feet.
First stop was a supply closet where he shed the pajamas and quickly dressed in his usual clothes. His uniform. It was more than the realization that the red pajama-thingys would make it obvious that he belonged in the infirmary—these clothes felt right, felt like a second skin. He hesitated in the doorway of the supply room on exiting, unsure of which direction to go.
A floor panel to his right lit up briefly. As he walked towards it, another one, some distance ahead, did the same. He began to trot along the quiet hallways at a half-jog, keeping an ear out for anyone who might also be heading his way, but hurrying to keep up with the ghostly directions, which seemed to be appearing and fading faster. When he reached a t-intersection in the corridor, a wall panel lit up with an arrowhead pointing the way. Nodding to himself, he took the darker pathway, following the curving corridor to where it ended at a transporter. Feeling just a little bit like a he was going against the rules, he took hold of the handle and 'thought' where he wanted to go—to follow the directions of his unseen guide. The doors slid shut soundlessly and opened almost immediately into another dark hallway.
The pull was stronger now, and he rode the wave of it without thinking to his destination.
Yes. Yes. Yes!
"Where the hell have you been?" Rodney's angry voice startled him into wakefulness and the Chair suddenly rocked back into an upright position. His neck had a crick in it from where he'd curled up on his side in the Chair; he rubbed at it now, frowning crossly at Rodney and slowly, stiffly, straightening out his position. Where do you think I was, genius?
"Oh don't start with me," Rodney continued to harangue him, fists on hips, looking really pissed. For a second, John thought Rodney had heard his thoughts or that he'd possibly spoken out loud. "You had everyone freaking out looking for you and here you are, down in the Chair room, like the controls of the city are just one big Barcalounger to you."
John held up a hand near his face and made it talk at Rodney.
"Don't you 'blah, blah, blah' me, Sheppard. Don't you get it? People are really worried about you." He looked around, frowningly. "Just what the hell brought you down here anyway?" He turned back to glare at John once more and then his expression changed to one of astonishment. He crossed to John's side in two strides, taking him by the chin and turning his head to the side. "The implant! It's gone..." Rodney dropped John's jaw to look around the Chair for the implant. Spying it on the floor, he reached down for it. John struck out sharply, grabbing Rodney's fingers painfully before they could close over the implant.
"Ow! Let go!" he complained. His expression softened as he looked up into John's face. "Seriously, John, I'll be careful. I need to see it though."
John tightened the lips that could not explain what Rodney needed to hear and shook his head. With his free hand, he pointed at his eyes. Satisfied that he had Rodney's attention, he relinquished his hold as they both straightened. Demonstrating a small circle with thumb and forefinger, he mimed attaching it to his head.
"Yes, yes, you broke out of the infirmary by placing your leads on Lt. Deveraux. Very clever. Carson was having kittens when I got the call from the infirmary."
John struggled with that mental image and let it go, but not before he briefly pictured the man with the odd accent sitting in a chair, covered with small furry creatures that were vocalizing in a plaintive sort of way. Shaking his head to both rid himself of the image as well as disagree with Rodney as to the point he was trying to make, he mimed the circles again, this time placing them on Rodney's forehead and then, touching middle finger to thumb, he held his arms out from his sides loosely, closed his eyes and hummed in a low monotone. He then opened one eye slightly to see if Rodney was following him.
"I hate to tell you, Colonel, but even when you could speak, Charades really wasn't your best game," Rodney's expression and tone were sour. John pointed to his eyes again and snapped his fingers impatiently at Rodney before going through the actions again. When he saw that Rodney was frowning at him intently, John pointed to the implant and repeated the whole sequence once more, his gestures becoming more emphatic.
"Ohmygod," Rodney breathed the sentence out all as one word. "It's another Ascension device."
John beamed at him, pleased that Rodney picked up on what he was trying to say.
"Come with me," Rodney took him roughly by the arm and began dragging him towards the door.
"So you're telling us that despite evidence of unusual healing on these most recent scans, the Colonel still can't talk and is not in complete control of his memories." Rodney sounded angry.
John looked up from where he was sitting on the side of the infirmary bed, studying the toes of his boots and wondering how much longer the discussion of his medical condition was going to continue. He'd never gotten anything to eat for dinner, he was pretty tired too. His head felt better though and he realized he'd been unaware of the low-level headache until it was no longer there. He'd been starting to kick his feet against the side of the bed in boredom when Rodney's words had caught his attention.
"Perhaps he just needs more time. After all, the implant has been removed and we have no idea how that was achieved," Teyla said calmly, glancing at Carson for confirmation. She somehow looked fresh and alert, as though it were not the middle of the night and she'd not been out looking for John along with everyone else.
Carson scratched the side of his ear. "I canna tell you, either of you, what to expect from here on out. We're in unexplored territory. I can tell you this: these most recent scans are nothing like the ones taken from this morning. It does confirm my theory that the implant was causing the damage."
"Most likely suppressing his memories to make it easier for him to leave everything he cares about behind and Ascend. Bastards."
"Rodney," Elizabeth said reprovingly. Unlike Teyla, she looked tired, and John felt guilty for adding to her burdens.
"Well they are. Not satisfied with merely withdrawing from this worldly existence, they had to go and keep creating technological shortcuts to attain the highest level of spirituality. I'm not a religious man myself, but I think that counts as cheating." Rodney's expression suddenly caved in on itself and he turned to Carson, fear plainly etched in his voice. "He's not still on the road to Ascension, is he?"
"I dinna think so," Carson said slowly. "If anything, I'd say he seems more aware and more like himself. The scans certainly suggest healing and not more damage. Though how that implant came out and the healing was achieved is anybody's guess. My belief is that if he were not an ATA carrier however, the use of this technology would have been like lobotomizing him. Which is why the Zolon found it an effective means of inflicting punishment and managing their prisoners."
"Sheppard," Ronon rumbled suddenly, causing John to look over at him. "You know who you are?"
"What kind of question is that?" Rodney complained. "Not that he could answer you anyway. Or that he had the best grasp on that concept in the first place."
"Rodney." The way Elizabeth laid emphasis on his name indicated that she was irritated with him. She looked encouragingly at John and he realized she was hoping for an answer to Ronon's question. He made a face and shrugged.
"You see? He made the 'I'm fine' face, which I've seen him give under every circumstance from 'gee, we almost crashed the puddlejumper' to 'I think I'm turning into a giant bug', to 'no, I didn't notice the three foot slab of wood impaling my abdomen but I think it missed my kidneys.' You're not going to be able to get much from that."
Elizabeth looked at him curiously. "Just how is it that you are able to read the Colonel so well, Rodney?"
Rodney flushed. "Well, you know. We spend a lot of time together in the field, that sort of thing. He has this whole secret hand language that took me ages to figure out, but I've got it down now. Besides, he's only got five expressions to begin with."
Insulted, John leaned out and gibbsmacked Rodney in the head.
"Oh, c'mon, you know what I mean. I didn't say that you weren't extremely versatile in the use of those five expressions. You weren't exactly the most articulate person before all this, you know," Rodney sounded cross with him but he looked upset.
Articulate this. John flipped him the bird.
There was a ripple of suppressed amusement in the room and then Ronon said, "I dunno, seems he's doing pretty well getting his point across to me."
"Why don't we all call it a night?" Elizabeth suggested. "It's late and I don't think there's anything more to be learned here this evening. Who knows, perhaps John will have regained more of his memories by the morning."
"I just hate not being able to do anything constructive," Rodney grumbled, not quite sotto voice.
"Carson," Teyla spoke suddenly as everyone was preparing to depart the room. "Perhaps the Colonel would be more likely to recover more of his memories if he stayed the remainder of the night in his own quarters?"
"Oh, I don't know about that, Teyla," Carson began but Rodney interrupted.
"No, no, she's right. Besides, what are you going to do if he decides to leave again? Chain him to the bed?"
John felt his muscles bunch and tighten, ready to act if he needed to move quickly. "Look at him," Rodney pointed, triumphant in his argument. "You think you can keep him here if he really wants to go? Without physical restraints, that is?"
"As if I ever could," Carson muttered. He appeared to be considering Teyla's suggestion for a moment and then sighed, accepting that he was ignoring his better judgment. "Very well then, he can go back to his quarters but one of you must stay with him at all times," he added sternly. "And he comes back here first thing in the morning."
With a collective sigh of relief, the team left the room.
Without any discussion at all, the team apparently decided that Rodney would be the one to stay the remainder of the night with John, which was okay by him. Entering his quarters was a weird experience; things that should have seemed familiar did not and yet other, innocuous items evoked the oddest memories.
Odder still, was the fact that Rodney seemed hell-bent on ignoring him. After bustling John into the room and gauging his reactions, Rodney had pushed him none-too-gently in the direction of the bed. "Go to sleep now. I've got work to do."
Somehow, that seemed very familiar.
John ignored Rodney in return, wandering around the room, randomly opening drawers and poking at items he found within. When he entered what appeared to be a small bathing and toilet area, he stood looking at his reflection in the mirror for a long moment. He looked scruffy and disreputable, with his hair too long and hanging down over his eyes and two-week's worth of beard covering his lower face and jaw. The side of his head where the implant had been looked a little puckered and angry, but it was no longer sore to the touch. He played with the controls in the cubicle until he determined how to get hot water flowing and he suddenly felt the need to take a cleansing bath. Not able to stopper the shallow stall so that it would fill with water, he was pleasantly surprised he could make it rain instead. No, shower.
Twenty minutes later, the room filled with steam, he finally felt clean. He'd had to wipe down the mirror with a towel in order to shave, but the face that looked back at him this time felt more like his own. The razor fell into his hands easily, the memory of how to use it came to him as simply as firing the weapons on the shooting range.
Leaving the towels behind, he stepped out into the main room, walking over to one of the drawers he'd explored earlier where he knew he could find some clothing. Rodney was engrossed in something on the computer when John entered the room but he glanced up and then sat gaping open-mouthed at John before snapping his mobile lips shut and ducking his head behind the screen.
John waited, eyebrow raised, for Rodney to lift his head again. He didn't have to wait long; after a few seconds, Rodney just peeped over the top of the viewscreen, his blue eyes widening when he realized John was watching him. He ducked his head again.
When he looked back over the top of the computer this time, his eyes narrowed into slits. "I know what you are doing, and it won't work. I've got stuff, important stuff, that I'm working on, so you can just forget about it."
"Oh don't play the innocent with me. I'm surprised anyone buys that act, really, Sheppard. You're not the only problem I'm working on, you know. I've got reports of strange outages coming in from all over and I've got Esposito's reports from earlier to sift through as well."
John shrugged and turned back to the drawers, opening one and taking out a pair of socks and a set of gray boxer-briefs. He dropped one of the socks on the floor. Ooops.
He bent over from the waist to retrieve it. Behind him, Rodney made a very satisfying choking noise.
John straightened, careful to keep his back turned so that Rodney could not see that he was smiling. The silence in the room grew heavy once more, and when John turned to see what Rodney was doing, he was deeply involved in the computer again. With a sigh, John laid the clothing on the dresser and crossed over towards him, standing beside Rodney's chair.
Rodney was studiously avoiding looking at him. "Busy here. What part of that do you not understand? And just so you know, I'm working on finding a solution for you." Rodney did look up at him that time, with an angry glare that made John think perhaps he was wrong about him and Rodney altogether.
Rodney lifted his chin with a snap. "This is all my fault, you know. You, you with the memory loss and the labor camps and the not being able to speak or remember anything." The anger on his face melted into guilt mixed with loss and sorrow. Rodney wasn't hard to read either; he was just hard to keep up with.
"You don't remember, but I was the one who violated Zolon law. No recording devices within 100 meters of the temple, like there were signs posted to that effect. And all violations of the law carry the same punishment: complete wipe of personality. No wonder Zolon boasted of such a low crime rate."
He pushed his chair back violently from the desk, slouching down in it to rub at his forehead with one hand before glaring at John again. "And you. You had to go and accept the responsibility for my actions yourself—convincing the Zolon that as team leader it was your place to be punished, not mine. Why'd you do that?" Rodney's voice was anguished, his face twisted with distress.
So you could save me, genius. John reached out and placed a hand on Rodney's shoulder, squeezing gently and rubbing his thumb in small circles.
Rodney pulled away, suddenly standing up. "I lied back there in the infirmary. I don't know you, I can't 'read' you. I have no idea what you want from me, Sheppard. I never have."
Not Sheppard, John.
He reached out for Rodney, taking him by the shoulders and pulling him close. Rodney took a stumbling step towards him and allowed himself to be pulled into John's embrace, giving a small sigh and bringing a hand up to brush John's damp skin between his shoulders.
Rodney suddenly stiffened and tried to pull away. "Okay, not only am I supposed to be working on making you better and you're being terribly distracting, but this is all very reminiscent of taking home a drunk co-ed after a frat party and I am not going to take advantage of you here."
Like you did frat parties.
"Oh, you have no idea the kinds of things I did in college, Colonel. Okay, so maybe I wasn't exactly the kind of guy who attended frat parties, but let me tell you..."
John interrupted him with a kiss. Rodney made a muffled kind of protest before his mouth opened to let John in. Rodney's hands suddenly became possessive, clutching at John's back and pulling him closer, Rodney's mouth hard and desperate against his own. Instead of resisting, John relaxed his mouth and encouraged Rodney in, humming in approval of the needy thrusts of Rodney's tongue within John's mouth.
John dragged his mouth away from Rodney's, working his way around to Rodney's jaw and the side of his neck, causing Rodney to tilt his head back and dig in with his fingers at John's shoulders. John worked at Rodney's clothes, pulling the hem of his shirt up so that John could get a hand against Rodney's skin, cupping him through his pants, pulling a groan out of Rodney as he pushed up against John.
"What do you want from me, Sheppard?" Rodney whispered somewhere near John's left ear.
Breathing heavily, John carefully pulled away from Rodney, trailing his fingers across the skin of Rodney's abdomen as he stepped back and walked deliberately over to the bed. He knelt on it on his hands and knees, looking over his shoulder at Rodney to see if his intent was clear.
Rodney stood somewhat stupefied, one hand over his cock as though fighting for control as he stared at John. "Um, well, yes, but...I don't know if you remember things correctly but you usually...you always top."
Not this time.
John knelt forward until he could take the weight of his upper body on his forehead and reached back with both hands to grab his ass cheeks and spread them wide in invitation.
"Holy crap," Rodney breathed, and the mildness of his expletive made John chuckle. He continued to hold the position as he listened to Rodney shedding clothes behind him, conducting a running monologue at the same time.
"I'm probably going to burn in hell for this, that is to say if I believed in hell in the first place, and I should really get back to the analysis I was conducting on the implant because it doesn't make sense that the device would have a reverse option, the Ancients believed in Ascension or death, but you look so amazing like this and it's definitely all kinds of wrong to be taking advantage of you in your condition but it's you. How can I resist you?"
And then Rodney's hands were on him, stroking and kneading and John groaned with the sheer relief in having Rodney touch him at last. He let go of one of his cheeks to reach forward for the nightstand drawer but Rodney said, "I've got it," and leaned across him to open the drawer for the lube, the heavy weight of Rodney's body making an all-too-brief contact across John's back. John wanted Rodney back, pressing against him, pressing within him and he shoved his ass up impatiently, seeking more contact.
"Patience is a virtue," Rodney said in a suspiciously amused tone of voice. John heard the snap of the cap on the lube and shuddered when Rodney's slick fingers began to circle his hole. He relaxed into the touch, shifting position to rest on his forearms, rocking back into Rodney's fingers with a groan.
Rodney proceeded to take him apart slowly, teasing John with his fingers, bringing him to the height of one sensation only to withdraw and change his tactics again. He stroked and circled at John's entrance, he pumped gently inside John with his fingers folded into a point, he flicked a fingertip over John's prostate. Each new touch had John writhing under Rodney's hands and he found it hard to believe that he'd never submitted to Rodney's manipulations in this way before. Why hadn't he done this before?
When he felt Rodney's warm hands on either side of his hips and the blunt end of Rodney's cock nudging at his hole, it was all he could do not to thrust up against Rodney and force him to push inside. As it was, Rodney slowly eased himself within; causing John to groan and clutch the bed-sheets as Rodney carefully entered him. When the movement was complete, Rodney lay folded over his back, breathing hard for a moment as he held his position.
John began rocking infinitesimally against him, dragging a heartfelt moan from Rodney's lips and forcing him to start moving within John. Rodney's hand snaked under John's belly and up his chest, holding him close as Rodney stroked and then pinched a nipple between his fingers. John arched up into Rodney's touch, pleasantly surprised that Rodney knew that he needed that arc of almost-pain to trigger a corresponding rush of sensation to his cock. Rodney continued to tease him with one hand while moving against him with an impossibly slow rhythm, pulling from him wordless sounds when he wanted to say, 'yeah, like that' and 'c'mon Rodney, give it to me'. As though he'd heard John, Rodney began to pound him in earnest, the wet slap of sound of skin against skin and Rodney's little grunts almost orgasmic in and of itself.
Yes. Yes. Yes!
Rodney's large hand closed over his cock and John felt himself shudder at the touch. Rodney was in him and around him and he never wanted this moment to end. Rodney knew all the right ways to bring him to the edge though, and he was soon releasing his load into Rodney's hand. Collapsing down together onto the bed, Rodney picked up the pace, small shudders and the tightening of fingers on John's shoulder indicating the nearness of his own orgasm.
When he started to mutter "Almost there..." John tried to speak without thinking. 'Go for it, Rodney,' he meant to say but the words caused a stabbing pain in his temple and he cried out instead. Rodney cried out as well, shuddering into John with a pulsing warmth that left John soothed and sleepy under Rodney's weight.
And struggling a little to breathe. After a moment of relishing Rodney's weight against him, the fullness of him within John's body, John had to move in order to breathe. Rodney made a small sound of acknowledgment and shifted slowly, pulling out of John's body and rolling to one side, leaving John with an exquisite sense of loss. John continued to lie face down, feeling Rodney's come trickle out of his ass, unwilling to move.
Finally he lifted his head. Rodney opened his eyes and smiled at him sleepily and John leaned forward to kiss him, hard.
I love you. He could say the words here in his head that he could never say out loud.
I know, Rodney's hands replied, lazy against his sweat-dampened skin. John relaxed into the bed again, bringing one arm forward to rest under his head.
They lay this way for several long moments before Rodney suddenly shifted, half rising to look down at John with an intense expression on his face. "It was the Chair, wasn't it? It was the Chair that removed the implant and the city that instituted the healing process for you. But why?"
John rolled so that he was facing Rodney, reaching out to lightly touch his face. He had no answers.
Soft touches became the barest of finger movements of skin on skin as they both drifted into sleep.
The early grey light of dawn woke him, as usual; before his alarm was due to go off. He lay there for a moment, savoring that time between full wakefulness and sleeping, acknowledging the warmth that was Rodney beside him. Yeah, it was pretty stupid letting Rodney stay the night and he had to watch that tendency in him to cave on that particular point. He couldn't help it; he liked sleeping next to Rodney, though he'd die before he'd ever admit it. Mornings were some of the best times, when he could lazily draw a hand over the pale skin of Rodney's back and pretend that it was just a prelude to sex. That is wasn't about the pleasure he got from touching Rodney's surprisingly soft skin.
Best get up though, before Ronon came looking for him.
Awareness jolted through him.
He was back on Atlantis. He was home. He was Lt. Colonel John Sheppard and he was flirting with disaster by sleeping with his CSO but he knew who he was. He grabbed Rodney by the shoulder and shook him, hard. He opened his mouth to speak Rodney's name but the pain lanced through his skull as though someone had shoved an ice-pick behind his eye and he yelped, putting a hand to the side of his head.
"What? Oh right, overslept. Sorry, sorry," Rodney moved on autopilot out of the bed, reaching for clothing scattered on the floor before he looked up sharply at John. "Wait a minute... are you in there? I mean, you you, as opposed to lobotomized you?"
John folded his arms across his chest and glared at Rodney.
His face lit up. John never could get over how expressive Rodney was or that some of the looks Rodney gave were only for him. An evil, mischievous grin stole over Rodney's features and he said thoughtfully, "You know, I could get used to this. No harassing me out in the field for being too slow. No hovering over my shoulder and asking me if I'm close to finishing whatever project you want me to have done yesterday already. No..."
John rolled over Rodney and landed feet first on the floor, grabbing up Rodney's shirt and throwing it at him. He made the 'will you hurry it up for god's sake' gesture with his hand and stalked over to the bureau to hastily pull out a uniform and begin to get dressed.
"Oh, I see," Rodney said in a voice that sounded small and somewhat defeated. "You're in a hurry this morning."
John ran a hand through his hair after he'd pulled a black t-shirt over his head, tucking it into the waistband of his BDUs and zipping the fly. He spared a quick glance over at Rodney, who was slowly getting dressed as well. What the hell was eating him? With Rodney it could be hard to tell. It could be that he hadn't gotten enough sleep the night before or that he was already thinking about breakfast or that his mind was miles deep in some complex problem he was trying to solve.
He liked you better the way you were before.
The realization hit him with the unexpected force of a blow to the head and he was momentarily stunned by the thought until anger surged in behind it. Was that what Rodney wanted? For him to be incapacitated in some way that left him dependent on Rodney?
He knelt quickly to put on his boots, angry beyond all reason, suddenly glad that he still couldn't speak or he might say something regrettable to Rodney just now, something permanent and irrevocable.
Isn't that what he's afraid of? That one day you'll just get fed up and walk away like everyone else has done in his life?
The thought made him look up sharply in Rodney's direction. Rodney was watching him with solemn eyes that quickly ducked away when they made contact with John's.
Am I really that much of an asshole?
John was doubly glad that at that moment, he was unable to speak-that he wasn't expected to say something right now. The last thing he wanted to do now was discuss his feelings, for chrissake. He was still operating on less than full capacity thanks to the uber-controlling Zolon, there was still something weird going on within the city that he couldn't exactly pinpoint. Or even begin to explain.
As usual, the way he felt about things had to come last on his list of priorities.
Rodney found himself sneaking little glances at John as they made their way towards the infirmary, checking for any indication that something was wrong. Despite his worries, John looked fine – good even – walking at Rodney's side with his familiar long-limbed swagger firmly in place. Rodney took a deep breath and told himself to relax. After all, John had remembered – things were going to be okay.
Despite this, Rodney was feeling more than a little off-balance. Last night had been... Well, unexpected to say the least. Of course, Rodney had been fully aware that something was likely to happen between them once they'd been left alone together for the night, but he never would have anticipated events to unfold as they had. For John to be so open, so giving, so loving... it was, well, simply incredible. In fact, it had been everything Rodney had ever wanted from their relationship.
It wasn't that John hadn't always been a generous lover, far from it, but last night had marked a definite change in the dynamic of their relationship. All their previous encounters had occurred beneath the long shadow of DADT and Rodney had never before been able to quite shake the feeling that John was with him despite himself. It wasn't that he ever doubted that John wanted him, desired him, or even cared for him, but more that he'd always got the impression that John himself had felt that he was weak somehow for doing so – that by being with Rodney and breaking part of his military code – albeit one that was simply ridiculous - he was nevertheless breaking his oath.
But not last night, Rodney thought, casting another small glance in John's direction and feeling himself flush slightly when his gaze met John's. Last night there'd been no shadow, no guilt and no shame. Last night had been just the two of them – John and Rodney, free from all restraints and strictures. It had been perfect.
Yet things seemed to have shifted again this morning; John's openness of the night before giving way to his usual state of reserve. Rodney sighed and shook his head, resigning himself to the fact that he was never going to truly understand what went on in John's head. As they turned the corner on the way to the transporter, he felt John's shoulder brush against his. It could have been nothing more than an accident, but when Rodney looked over at John again, John repeated the action, bumping his shoulder against Rodney's and then grinning at him. Rodney snorted, recognizing a Sheppard-style apology when he saw one, and bumped John back, feeling his own smile bloom in response. Even if all that happened was that they returned to their previous relationship – friends who occasionally fucked – Rodney knew he'd always have that one night with John as something more. And that he'd always have John as his friend, even if they were destined never to be anything more.
It happened as they approached the transporter – it wasn't much at first, no more than a faint flicker, gone almost before it had begun, but it was enough. Both John and Rodney stopped walking immediately, turning to each other with matching expressions of concern. They waited for a few beats, eyes slowly rising to the light fittings running along the length of the corridor. Several minutes passed and Rodney was just starting to think that maybe they'd both managed to imagine it when it happened again. This time it wasn't just the lights, the control panel on the transporter flickered too.
"That's not supposed to happen," Rodney said. "We're not due to do any work on the power grid for another couple of months."
John cocked a questioning eyebrow as Rodney reached for his radio.
"Radek?" Rodney said. "You in the lab? What's going on?"
"Rodney?" came Radek's immediate reply. "I'm not sure. I've just got to the lab and am reviewing the problem, but we seem to be experiencing some fairly large fluctuations in the power grid."
"Yes," Rodney replied sarcastically. "Surprisingly enough, that hadn't escaped my notice. Have you been able to pin-point the source?"
"Not yet, Rodney," Radek replied, sounding ever so slightly harassed. "We've got warning signals flashing up from everywhere at the moment and I haven't yet had time to track each one. I-"
"Okay," Rodney replied, cutting Radek off. He glanced over at John, who was frowning into space. "Look, I'm with Sheppard at the moment – just let me get him back to the infirmary and then I'll be with you. I take it nothing major's been affected yet – ZPM, the CPU, the gate?"
"No, Rodney, they all seem to be fine at the moment."
"Good, then I'll see you in a few." The lights flickered again as he snapped his radio connection closed. It buzzed into life almost immediately as Elizabeth's voice sounded in his ear.
"Rodney?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm on it," he replied quickly. "Power fluctuations – nothing serious yet, but Radek and I will let you know when we've got more information." Closing his radio connection once again, Rodney turned back to John. "Come on, let's get to the infirmary – the sooner Carson checks you out the sooner you can get back to helping me out with messes like this."
But John's wasn't listening to Rodney anymore. He was standing in the middle of the corridor with his head tilted to one side and an expression of intent concentration on his face, just as he had the previous day.
"Hey," Rodney said softly, reaching out to touch John's arm. "What's up?"
John jumped a little as Rodney touched him, his gaze seeking Rodney's out, his eyes wide and a little unfocused. He frowned and opened his mouth as if trying to speak but, like before, no words were forthcoming. He snapped his mouth closed with an audible click and turned away with a huff on annoyance, striding down the corridor at a fast pace.
Rodney blinked and shook his head, at a loss to explain John's actions. The sound of John clearing his throat irritably brought Rodney back to himself and he hurried to catch up to him, waiting at the entrance to the transporter. John ushered Rodney in ahead of him with a jerk of his head and then selected the button that would take them to the main lab.
"Um," Rodney said. "Thanks for the show of support and all, but I really do think you should go to the infirmary." He pressed the appropriate button, aware that John was positively bristling beside him. "Look, I know you want to come help," he said, turning towards John and spreading his hands out in a placating manner. "I know, but we can handle this – it's probably just one of the power nodes on the fritz, nothing to worry about, okay?"
John shook his head violently, reaching up to touch the red patch on his temple where the implant had been embedded. He then pointed up towards the roof and then tapped his head again, his eyes willing Rodney to understand him.
"What?" Rodney asked. "I don't understand – your head? The implant? What?"
John shook his head again, his shoulders drooping as he let out a sigh of resignation.
"I'm sorry, John," Rodney apologized, "but I don't understand. Do the power fluctuations have something to do with the implant?"
John shook his head and shrugged, looking both irritated and disgruntled, but more, Rodney thought, at the situation than at Rodney himself. The transporter doors slid open, revealing the corridor leading to the infirmary and, as if on cue, the lights flickered again. John glared up at them and then looked back at Rodney. He shook his head slowly.
Rodney sighed. "Okay, okay, you think there's more to it – I get that," he said. "And you might well be right, but you'll be of no use to anyone if Carson gets wind of you going AWOL and decides to confine you to the infirmary."
John put his hands on his hips and glared at Rodney.
Rodney rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. "You can't even talk, for chrisssakes," he said impatiently. "And you obviously haven't regained all your memories if you think you can out-glare me."
John snorted at that and ducked his head at Rodney, conceding the point.
"Just go get checked out," Rodney said. "I promise I will keep you up-to-date on what we find, okay?"
John looked at Rodney consideringly, but then nodded slowly in agreement.
"Good," Rodney said. "Come on, then. Let's get you to Carson."
But before he could step out of the transporter, John stopped him by placing a hand on his chest. Rodney looked up in surprise to see John shaking his head again. Pointing a finger to his chest he then gestured over his shoulder towards the infirmary with his thumb. Next he pointed to Rodney and then to the transporter button for the labs. Finally, he pointed again to Rodney and then to his own ear, as if gesturing towards his now-absent radio.
"Okay, fine," Rodney replied with a grin. "I'll go straight to the labs and see what's going on. And," he continued as John caught hold of his arm. "I will, of course, keep you posted. Okay?"
John nodded and stepped out of the transporter, squeezing Rodney's arm affectionately as he did so. As the transporter continued down to the labs, Rodney found himself smiling down at the place on his arm that was still warm from John's touch. Even the flickering lights that greeted him as he left the transporter and the doorway to the lab that refused to open to him on his first few attempts weren't quite enough to dampen his spirits.
Less than an hour later, however, and spirits all round were well and truly dampened. They'd managed to identify ten places where Atlantis' power-grid had been compromised, the casing containing the fine fiber cables that carried the ZPM-generated power throughout the city having been almost completely shorn through. As a result, they continued to suffer power fluctuations, the lights and computer terminals flickering off and then back on again with increasing regularity.
"Sabotage?" Lorne asked, peering worriedly up at the flickering display screen on which the damaged areas had been highlighted in red. "Do you think we have an intruder in the city?"
"Doubtful," Rodney replied dismissively, not looking up from his computer terminal, determined to get as much out of it as he could before it lost power again. Part of him was grateful that Lorne was here as it meant that he hadn't had to stop what he was doing in order to sit in a meeting, but a far larger part of him was irritated by these interruptions to his work. He frowned down at his latest set of useless scans before huffing and setting up a new sensor sweep, cursing under his breath when he lost power mid-way through a particularly complicated line of code.
"How can you be so sure?" Lorne pressed. "We should instigate a search, just in case."
"We can be sure because of the positioning," Radek replied quickly, obviously having spotted that Rodney was reaching the end of his tether. "Several of the damaged areas are almost completely inaccessible and do little actual damage to the city. If we were truly under attack, the attackers would certainly have chosen more strategically advantageous sites to target."
"Okay, so what else could it be?" Lorne pressed.
"Where's Esposito?" Rodney asked suddenly. "How long does it take to run a simple biological comparison, for crying out loud?"
"Much longer than we anticipated," came the reply as a rather harassed looking Esposito came through the door with Morris at her heels. "The samples kept eating through the equipment."
"What do you mean 'eating'?" Rodney asked, frowning over at the pair of them. "Is it alive, is that what you're telling me?"
"It's the best explanation I've got, Rodney," Esposito replied. "Morris and I have been trying to study this stuff since SGA-5 returned from P3M-T57, but we've had real difficulty managing to contain a sample for long enough to analyze it properly. From what we can tell, it's a biological agent of some kind – some sort of fairly basic parasitic life form."
"Hmm," Rodney hummed, looking up to study the schematics of the damaged areas, which flashed a few time before shutting off completely. "With a taste for our power grid, it would appear. Well, this is Pegasus, I suppose, and we've certainly come across stranger stuff."
"We think it's going after a particular component in the casing material – the synthetic polymer perhaps," Morris added. "That would explain why it first attacked SGA-5's weapons and then moved on to the power grid insulation once inside the city." The display suddenly flared to life again and everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
"You see here," Esposito said, stepping up to the now-active display and indicating the power line that was most affected and tracing it back to its source. "It appears as though the source is the auxiliary labs where we were doing the first analyses of SGA-5's gear."
Rodney nodded and looked across to Radek, who also seemed to be in agreement.
"Okay, you make a good case," Rodney said. "Although," he continued, glaring over at Morris. "I would infinitely prefer it if you would endeavor apply such logic to future situations in the field before you bring potentially harmful substances back to the city."
Morris opened his mouth, presumably to utter some kind of denial, but Rodney beat him to it. "Suggestions?" he snapped.
Esposito and Morris were both silent and Rodney rolled his eyes.
"Let's see your results," Radek said, holding out his hand for the pad Esposito was clutching. "Hopefully we can figure out from this what exactly we are dealing with and how best to stop it."
"Oh, shit!" Rodney shouted the expletive a scant fifteen minutes after he and Radek had managed to forcibly eject everyone but Lorne from their lab so they could concentrate on working out a solution in peace.
"Rodney?" Radek said, scurrying over to Rodney's side. "What is it... Oh, do prdele," he cursed under his breath.
"My thoughts exactly," Rodney agreed. "We're screwed."
"Guys? You're kinda making me nervous, here," Lorne said from his seat across the table from Rodney.
"It's infected the ZPM chamber," Rodney stated baldly.
"That doesn't sound good," Lorne said, rising to his feet, his hand coming to rest automatically on the butt of the weapon in his thigh holster.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "No," he replied. "It is, in fact, the exact opposite of good – in a
'we're all quite likely going to die an excruciatingly painful and entirely horrendous fiery death' kind of a way."
"Can you pull the plug on the ZPM?" Lorne asked just as Rodney called up the system protocols and inputted the command to do just that.
"Let me see..." he said, initiating the shut-down procedure. Somewhat predictably, nothing happened. "Damn it, no. It's not responding," he replied. "It's probably already suffered too much damage to shut-down remotely.
"So what now?" Lorne asked. "Do we need to evacuate?"
Rodney shook his head. "No, we're not there quite yet, although you should probably talk to Elizabeth and have people standing by just in case it comes to that." He saw Lorne nod and turned to Radek. "You stay here and keep working – see if the others have turned up anything useful. I'll head down to the ZPM chamber and see whether I can disconnect it manually."
As Radek and Lorne left to carry out their various tasks, Rodney started to gather up as many supplies as he thought he could reasonably carry with him, preparing to head down to the ZPM room. Suddenly, the doors to the lab burst open to reveal a rather disheveled and decidedly wild-eyed Sheppard.
"John?" Rodney started to say, but was interrupted by John rushing up to him and clutching his shoulders tightly, his mouth working frantically as if trying to tell Rodney something of vital importance.
"Sheppard!" Rodney shouted, grabbing John's shoulders in return and shaking him a little. "We've been through this – I can't understand you!"
John let out a noise that sounded very much like a growl and released his grip on Rodney's arms, taking a step back. He gave up on trying to communicate verbally and started on his little charades routine. Putting his hands together in front of him, he then violently pulled them apart, spreading his fingers wide as he did so, seemingly to indicate an explosion.
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney said. "The ZPM has been infected with some sort of biological agent that's eating through its casing. We think SGA-5 picked it up somehow during their last mission." He frowned as he looked at John, who was nodding frantically and starting to wave his hands around again. "How did you know that?"
John closed his eyes briefly and shook his head, spreading his hands wide with the palms facing upwards as if at a loss of how to explain. He then repeated a series of motions which Rodney, by now, had come to recognize; first John pointed a finger to his temple and then up at the ceiling and then back down at his head.
"You're hearing something?" Rodney asked. "Someone is telling you what's happening?"
John nodded again, pointing up urgently to the ceiling as he did so. He then glanced around the lab and, spotting the city schematics still being displayed on the lab's main view-screen, pointed to them instead and then back to his head.
"Wait, the city's telling you what's wrong?" Rodney asked in amazement. "Really?"
John nodded, then frowned, then shook his head; all of which had Rodney frowning and shaking his own head in confusion.
"What? That made absolutely no sense whatsoever," he huffed in exasperation.
John batted away his comment with a wave of his hands and then pointed towards the ZPM room on the city schematic, rolling his hand in a 'hurry up' gesture.
"Yes, yes," Rodney said, picking up his bag and grabbing his laptop. "That was exactly where I was headed before I was interrupted."
"Damn it," Rodney cursed as he examined the casing that surrounded the ZPM. "No wonder we're losing power." The ZPM chamber was almost completely worn through, all brown and cracked around the edges like a particularly strong acid had been split on it. As he inspected the damage, Rodney could see the glow of the ZPM itself emanating through the ruined casing. He shivered as he realized just how close the bacteria were to the ZPM itself – all that power, it would very likely destroy not only the city, but the entire planet if they couldn't stop it.
"I'm going to try the manual override," he told John, moving back and kneeling down so he could access the control panel. His heart sank as he opened the hatch - the insides were a mess, brown sludge-like residue caked the crystals and the connections themselves were totally eaten away. "Fuck," Rodney whispered, drawing back with a sigh and looking over at John.
John was doing his staring at the wall trick again, one hand half-raised and his eyes pressed tightly shut. Suddenly his eyes popped open and he clicked his fingers together once and then pumped his fist in a triumphant gesture.
"What?" Rodney asked, a brief flash of hope flaring within him as he found himself trusting in a last-minute Sheppard Hail Mary. "Have you got something?"
John nodded and crossed quickly over to the ZPM case, staring down at the damage intently.
"Well, what?" Rodney asked impatiently, getting to his feet and then moving to stare down at the ZPM chamber with John. "Cause we're on something of a deadline here."
As if on cue, Rodney's radio flared to life and Lorne's voice came over the wire. "Rodney, how we doing?" he asked.
"Not now!" Rodney snapped, wincing when John shot him a look he knew well from the field – the one that said that he needed to keep his CO up to speed with what was happening, no matter what. "We need more time," he amended quickly. "It doesn't look good down here, so start the evacuation procedures, but hold off on implementing them for the moment."
"Roger that," Lorne responded.
"Now, what?" Rodney demanded of John as the radio connection fell silent.
John beckoned Rodney closer, holding one hand over the damaged ZPM casing and then opening and closing his fist rapidly over and over again. He looked up at Rodney expectantly, his eyes pleading with Rodney to understand what he was trying to convey.
"John, I don't-" Rodney started to say, but John caught hold of his arms, pulling Rodney towards him and giving him a little shake.
"Okay, okay," Rodney said, his hands coming up to make calming motions at John. "Show me again."
John nodded and then pointed at the casing again, this time clearly indicating a patch where the microscopic bacteria still appeared to be eating away at the polymer.
"Okay," Rodney said. "The bacteria, I get it."
John nodded and then pointed up to one of the room's light fittings before pointing back down to the ZPM.
Rodney frowned. "Yes," he said. "We already know that the bacteria is causing the power fluctuations."
John shook his head vigorously, repeating the rapid open-and-close hand gesture over the patch of bacteria before raising his hand to draw a line over his throat.
"Wait, so what you're saying is that the light will-" but before Rodney could finish speaking, the doors to the ZPM chamber suddenly slammed closed with a tremendous bang. Both John and Rodney started, turning to each other in confusion.
Then the lights went out.
"What the hell?!" Rodney said, spinning around to stare at the doors in astonishment while scrambling blindly in his pack for the flashlight he was certain he'd packed. "What now?"
With the door shut and the over-head lights off, the room was lit only by the eerie glow from the ZPM. At his side, John made a low rumble of anger. He was standing with his hands clenched into tight fists, his entire body radiating tension. His eyes were narrowed and he looked very dangerous all of a sudden. He started forward and stalked over to the door, placing his hand on it for a moment before turning back to Rodney. He shook his head slowly and then pointed to the place on his head where the implant had been, his expression grim.
Rodney reached up and tapped his radio. "Radek?" he called. "Do you know what's going on?"
"Rodney, I do not understand what is happening," came Radek's reply. "Something is interfering with all the controls on your level, but I don't think it's related to the bacteria. As far as I can tell, it appears to be coming from Atlantis' CPU itself."
"Well that's just great," Rodney replied, finally managing to locate his flashlight. He made his way over to the panel by the door, popping off the cover and shining the beam of the flashlight into the interior. "What does it look like the CPU is doing?"
"It makes no sense," Radek replied. "It is as if you have been completely cut off – no power whatsoever to either the level itself or any of the transporters that service it. Plus, all the blast doors have come down."
"Just wonderful," Rodney muttered, trying unsuccessfully to open the door manually. "That means we're stuck in here with the ZPM about to go critical."
"You cannot disconnect it?" Radek asked sounding very concerned.
"No," Rodney replied. "The connections are totally fried – no way it's budging, even if I could get out of here to get more equipment – which I can't because the door is equally stuck."
Rodney slumped down into the wall beside the door and then slowly slid down to the floor, pulling the radio from his ear as he did so. "Oh, crap," he said softly, raising his eyes to look at John. "We're going to die in here. Typical, I finally get my one perfect night with you, and now we're both going to die."
Lost in his own misery, Rodney didn't notice John move until he was standing over him. Reaching down, John pulled him up off the floor, moving his hands so that he could hold Rodney tightly by the shoulders. Rodney forced himself to look up and found himself staring into John's eyes. John shook his head firmly, his eyes almost black in the dim yellow light from the ZPM, but the look of utter determination on his face was clearly visible.
Rodney took a deep breath, gathering strength from the reassuring touch of John's hands on his body and the look of conviction in John's eyes. "Okay," he said, straightening up and sliding his radio back into place. "You're right; we don't give up. So... any ideas?"
John nodded again and stabbed a finger in the direction of the door and then tapped the red patch on his temple.
Rodney frowned. "What?" he asked. "The door and the implant. You mean they're connected somehow?"
John nodded, looking excited now that Rodney was finally correctly interpreting his actions.
"But how could they possibly... Oh my god, the transmission relay!" Rodney gasped as the bolt of inspiration struck. "You think it's the device – that, for some reason, it's connecting with Atlantis' CPU and shutting down this section."
John nodded again. He made the meditation gesture from earlier and then tapped the center of his chest with his index finger and shook his head.
"It wants to make sure you ascend," Rodney said as understanding slowly dawned. "So it's trying to prevent anything that might mean that you don't – anything that is helping you to hold on to your existence here."
John nodded again. He licked his lips and took a deep breath, seeming to be gathering his strength. His lips moved and a single word, broken but still just about recognizable, emerged.
"Atlantis," John said, breathing hard as if in pain. He pointed up towards the ceiling and then back down to his head. "Atlantis."
"You mean that it's the city?" Rodney asked in amazement. "That Atlantis has been communicating with you all along? That's why you've been getting better."
John nodded, sweat beading on his forehead from the effort of talking.
"Rodney? John? What is going on?" Radek sounded frantic. "Dr Weir and Major Lorne are with me. We need to know whether or not to evacuate the city."
"Radek, you've got to destroy the Zolon device!" Rodney shouted into the radio. "It's what's accessed the CPU and shut down everything here."
"What?" came the understandably confused response.
"Look," Rodney said, aware that John was making hurry up motions with his hands. "John thinks he knows a way to stop the ZPM from blowing, but the device is attempting to stop us - it's trying to ensure that John ascends."
"Rodney?" Radek asked again. "What do you-"
"Just do it!" Rodney interrupted with a shout. "Smash it, shoot it, blow it up – I don't care, just destroy it now so we can get on with things here and stop the ZPM from destroying us!"
The sound of a weapon firing echoed over the radio link and then Ronon's voice came over the wire.
"It's destroyed," he said. And, as he spoke, the lights flickered back on around them.
"Right, so what now?" Rodney asked, turning to John and feeling slightly breathless. That was only one problem down and they still had a pretty damn big one to go. "The ZPM is still going to go critical if we can't find a way to stop the bacteria from eating through the protective casing."
John grinned; it was the sort of grin that told Rodney that he had no need to worry - the one John had grinned as he pushed Rodney over the balcony, the one he'd grinned last night, just before he'd kissed Rodney. As Rodney watched, John lifted his hand pointing first at the ceiling and then at his head. Rodney found himself grinning in return.
"Okay then, gene-boy," he said. "What does Atlantis say we should do?"
As it turned out, John's random flashy-hand charades over the ZPM chamber hadn't been such a bad explanation of the solution, Rodney thought to himself as he waved the black light over a particularly stubborn patch of bacteria, although his second attempt at acting out the solution had proved to be more effective. Now armed with specially augmented life-sign detectors, mercury-vapor UVC-emitting black lights and aided by Atlantis' advanced sensor sweeps, Rodney had teams combing every inch of the city and eradicating all signs of the bacterial infestation. They'd been fortunate, in a way, that things had panned out the way they had – the fact that the bacteria had managed to access the ZPM chamber had alerted them to the problem before the bacteria had managed to get too firm a grip on the city.
Doing a final check with his life-sign detector, Rodney ascertained that he'd finally managed to annihilate the bacteria on the length of power cable on which he'd been working. Thanks to John and his as yet unexplained connection to the city, they'd discovered that the bacteria, much like many Earth micro-organisms, could be sterilized using the short-wavelength ultra-violent light. The UV radiation destroyed the organism's nucleic acids and so disrupted their DNA and prevented their growth and reproduction.
"Okay, we're all clear here," he said, waving over the engineering crew so they could get started on the repairs immediately. Although he and Radek had been able to re-route the power grid to avoid the affected areas, the faster they were back up to full capacity, the better.
Satisfied that the repair crew had things covered, Rodney slowly made his way to the next section to be scanned. It was a completely mundane task - identify an infested patch, expose the bacteria to the UVC, check with the detector and then repeat the process until the area was clear. It was also one that Rodney could have easily passed on to one of his minions, but he found himself quite happy to take part in the proceedings. It was calming to have something so mindless to do and it had the added benefit of giving him time to think. And, as was not at all unusual of late, his thoughts all revolved around one John Sheppard.
John was currently in the infirmary; to say that he'd been reluctant to go would be a vast understatement, but Carson had got that recalcitrant look of his and so there'd been no arguing with him. It wasn't that Rodney was avoiding John, not really, it was just that he'd felt it prudent to have at least some of his thoughts in order before seeing him again. He'd let things slip over the past couple of days – let himself become accustomed to the open and unfettered version of John and had allowed himself to respond in kind – and he was rather unsure of how John would react to what had passed between them once he'd recovered completely.
Upon reflection, Rodney decided that his best course of action was to act as if the past day or so simply hadn't happened. While he knew that their night together was something he would never forget, he seriously doubted that John would feel the same way. At least not now that he was once again in full possession of his faculties. And while this saddened Rodney, he knew better than to push John on things of a personal nature. Doing so would only result in John pulling away completely – he'd disappear behind that great impersonal wall he so loved to hide behind, and that was the very last thing Rodney wanted. No, far better to let things be – to act as he always had and be John's friend in public and hope that their more intimate encounters continued in private. To want more than that was both foolish and dangerous.
Besides which, it wasn't like he needed sappy declarations, not really. All he'd ever really wanted was some small indication that he meant as much to John as John did to him. And if it took John being mindwiped by some whacked out ascension device for him to show Rodney that, well then, that would just have to be enough.
John refrained mightily from kicking his heels against the side of the infirmary bed as he waited again to be cleared for duty. Carson and his team had been poking at him for hours during which time his ability to speak and answer questions had steadily improved, though there was still a moment's hesitation before the words would come to him and even the suggestion of a stutter from time to time. He'd also been questioned by Elizabeth, in a friendly but curious sort of way, and by Dr. Heightmeyer, in a professional capacity. Elizabeth, at least, seemed to feel he was ready to go back to work in a few days, Kate and Carson were both more cautious in their estimation of his functionality. In the end, they seemed to be settling on restricted duty for two weeks. He was willing to agree to pretty much anything at this point, as long as they let him out of the infirmary soon.
Rodney, he knew, was working with other teams to eradicate the strange, alien organism from all the sensitive equipment and overseeing the repair process. He might not surface again for days, which was fine by John. He felt a moment of amusement, recalling his efforts at trying to convey the solution to Rodney and the 'eureka' moment when Rodney had finally got it. John had mimed being under the broiling sun and then had done a very passable (if he said so himself) imitation of Rodney liberally applying his own, patented sunscreen before Rodney had figured out that UV radiation would destroy the metal-eating bacteria. After that, it had been a matter of determining the best spectrum and length of time to lethally irradiate the bacteria without it also proving fatal to the members of the expedition. There had also been the whole side issue of how the light spectrum on P3M-357 had suppressed the bacteria until the gate team had returned to Atlantis, whereby the bacteria had begun to both feed and multiply at an exponential rate. John had left those details up to the geeks. After he'd conveyed the information to Rodney, he'd sat back and watched with satisfaction as the entire expedition mobilized under Rodney's direction to start containing the bacterial invasion.
He felt a slight sense of satisfaction radiating from the city as well, but recognized that his deeper connection with the city was already fading, even as his own verbal skills improved and the device's grip on his mind diminished to nothingness. There was a sense of loss that was hard to explain, as well as a sense of support and comfort from what he'd come to think of as his city.
He shook off such foolish thoughts. Next thing he knew, he'd be talking to the jumpers, for crying out loud.
"Good news, Colonel," Carson said cheerfully as he approached with the latest test results in hand. "I'm officially releasing you now."
John nodded, still reluctant to talk if the effort wasn't required.
"Tell me, what was it like, not being able to speak?" Carson's question made him pause as he hopped off the bed and prepared to leave.
The obvious, easy answer came to his lips almost immediately, but he still hesitated before giving it. "Frustrating," he said, watching Carson nod in agreement before adding, "and interesting."
"Interesting how?" Carson's face shone with the light of someone who really wanted to know and John realized that, for Carson, this was no different than a technological puzzle for Rodney to solve or a cool, new machine for John to fly.
John took his time to speak precisely. "Because it was so hard to communicate an idea, I really had to think about what I wanted to say and how to say it. That really makes you pare things down to the basics, the stuff that's really important."
Carson seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding again. "I can see your point. Pity that more people aren't forced to think before they speak."
"Aw, doc," John drawled after a bit, "then we'd all be Teyla."
It was very satisfying to hear Carson's delighted laugh.
Finally released from the infirmary and realizing it was near midday and he'd not eaten since the day before, John made his way rather hurriedly towards the mess hall. The room was not as crowded as he'd expected, until he realized that most of the expedition was pulling extra shifts, either in bacteria-eradication or repairs.
He spotted Teyla, sitting at her favorite table near one of the large windows with a view of the sea. He took his tray over to her table with what he hoped was a casual air as he sat down across from her.
"John," she smiled. "Am I to understand that you've been released from the infirmary?"
Because it was habit, John confirmed her statement with a half-smile and a half-shrug.
She lifted a steaming cup of Athosian tea to her lips to sip it gracefully. "And you?" she said when she'd lowered her mug. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," he said, the words coming more easily than he'd expected. He took an enthusiastic bite out of his not-quite-beef sandwich, appreciating the naturally salty taste of the meat and savoring the cheese and tomato that went with it.
Teyla smiled serenely at him. "You sound well. I am pleased. When will you be allowed to return to duty?"
John made a face. "Two weeks," he said, wishing for a cold beer.
"It will pass sooner than you think," Teyla remarked smoothly. Funny, that she could say something so similar to Kate Heightmeyer and from Teyla it always sounded wise and reasonable, whereas from Kate it sounded practiced and formulaic.
"What did you learn from your experience, John?" Teyla added, just as he'd taken another bite from his sandwich.
He chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. "Next time, let Rodney take the fall for his crimes."
Teyla's smile said she didn't believe him. He felt his mouth twitch as he smiled in return. "Rodney was very distraught over the punishment meted out to you by the Zolon," Teyla said, taking a delicate bite of some sort of quiche-like food item on her plate. "He was determined to recover both you and the device, despite Elizabeth's warnings to the contrary."
"He was just feeling guilty," John said lightly, taking a swig from his bottle of water, eyes on Teyla as he spoke.
"Perhaps," Teyla agreed quietly before lifting her dark eyes to stare directly into John's. "Or perhaps he really cares about you."
"Oh c'mon, Teyla," John protested. "We all care about each other. We're a team, right?" He flashed back briefly to the time when team and family were indistinguishable to him and he wondered when he'd allowed these people to sneak under his radar when he'd sworn on the blood of fallen comrades that he'd never feel that way about anyone again.
Teyla gave him her pitying smile, which irritated the hell out of him.
"I believe what is between you and Rodney is more than just the love one has for a team member," she said sweetly, seemingly oblivious to his anger. "What is more important however, is whether Rodney knows how you feel. Does he?" She tilted her head at him in question and he felt his heart sink.
"I don't even know how I feel," he protested.
"I believe that you do, John. You simply choose to ignore that fact." Teyla's glance was piercing, and John suddenly felt small and somehow at fault for disappointing her. Damn, she was good.
"I don't know what to do," he confessed.
"That is a start," Teyla said in her usual, oracle-like fashion, which left him thinking that he did know what to do next, but then not being completely certain of how to proceed.
He needed to go find Rodney; of that he was sure.
There were no surprises when he finally ran Rodney to earth. He'd started out at the main science lab and then had followed the radio communiqués until he'd found Rodney, weary and strung out from too many hours on his feet without food, and ushered him into the mess hall for some necessary calories. Rodney had eaten mechanically; responding to John's stilted questions and then plunging back deep into thought, into a headspace where John had to compete for Rodney's attention. It was both an unsettling and familiar feeling.
After John had ascertained that Rodney's hands-on expertise could be dispensed with for a few hours, he'd quietly marshaled Rodney back to his own quarters for a rest. The scary thing was that Rodney went without much protest, making John worried for his well-being.
Rodney had just toed his shoes off and thrown himself down on his bed when he spoke, halting John in his furtive escape towards the door.
"So we're good, right?" Rodney said, face-down into his pillow, his words muffled. "Just like before, right?"
John started to automatically agree, but then he hesitated. He waited so long that Rodney lifted his head in concern. He found himself trying to hastily fill the empty space between them. "Sure, we're good, Rodney." His voice was still rusty from disuse.
"Good," Rodney said, allowing himself to flop back down to the bed, relief evident in his voice.
John stared down at Rodney's inert form, recalling with vivid clarity how, just the night before, Rodney had strived to maximize in John the height of sensation, for no other reason but that it brought John pleasure. His cock pulsed briefly in sympathy and John knew an intense moment of longing as he continued to stare at Rodney.
Shit, he was so screwed.
"No," he said suddenly. "Not like before."
Rodney stiffened where he lay for a brief moment and then rolled over onto his back. "Okay, not like before. Then like what?"
God, this was killing him. John ran a hand in a disturbed manner through his hair, trying to ignore the way Rodney was watching him through half-slit eyes. Even as John floundered for words, Rodney closed his eyes, a small, tight expression on his face.
"Right. Never mind. Forget I asked." Rodney flapped a weary hand in John's direction.
"No, it's just...just give me a sec, okay?" John almost growled out the words, but Rodney opened his eyes again, looking slightly hopeful. John sighed and went over to Rodney's desk to snag his chair, returning to reverse it in front of the bed so he could straddle it backwards as he tried to marshal his thoughts into coherent sentences. Rodney propped himself up on one elbow, interest apparently overcoming exhaustion.
"Okay, this is h-h-hard for me," John began, only to see Rodney's face light up with a snappy retort. John could tell that Rodney was about to make some comment about his inability to talk about anything personal not being something new and John could feel himself tensing up in anticipation. Rodney, however, read something in his posture that kept him silent. He raised a hand in a gesture of 'pax' and looked in what he probably hoped was an encouraging manner at John, but which came across as a smirk instead.
John folded his forearms along the top of the chair. "Back on Zolon, I had no idea who I was or how I'd gotten there—no memories at all of any time before I woke up in the field camp."
Rodney's smirk faded. He opened his mouth to speak, no doubt to apologize again, but John cut him off with a sharp, negative jerk of a hand. "Just hear me out, okay?"
Rodney nodded, a small frown between his eyes, the corners of his mouth pulled down in unhappiness. He gave a sigh, blowing air nosily through his lips and John had to suppress a smile at the thought of a speechless Rodney. Thank goodness they'd all been spared that.
"As time went by though, I had little flashes of memory, most of which didn't mean anything to me. But you were the first person I remembered, even if it took me a while to recall your name."
Rodney's face took on the same pleased expression he'd had when they'd discovered the personal shield and he'd thought himself invulnerable. He sat silently, expectantly, not certain if John had finished what he had to say.
He could stop here, John knew. He really didn't have to say anything more; he knew Rodney got it. John could just leave it at that and they could go on as before, perhaps with a little more give and take on each other's part, but still essentially the same.
It wasn't that he didn't want to tell Rodney how he felt about him. It was just that it made him feel so exposed and he'd spent the last twenty years learning how to shore up his defenses, not give someone the key to the city. But Rodney deserved more than that. He deserved to know.
This really was the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life.
"What I'm saying is that you're...very important to me. Perhaps the most important person in my life." There. He'd said it. He folded his lips in a thin line, as though to keep any more traitorous words from spilling out across them. He dropped his eyes to study his hands silently as he waited for Rodney's reaction.
Rodney remained still, frowning at John for so long that he began to replay his last sentences in his head, coming to the realization that his statement of Rodney's 'importance' was still pretty lame as declarations of feelings went and Rodney was well within his rights to decide that the best that John could give wasn't enough.
And then Rodney's mouth twitched, and an eyebrow slowly and sardonically lifted. "You are so pathetic, you know that, right?"
John felt his face close off. The tips of his ears felt like they were burning with a sudden flare of heat and he stiffened where he sat in his chair. He would have risen to his feet and left the room, except that there was an air of poorly suppressed glee about Rodney.
"Did you ace the part of flyboy school where you had to withhold secrets under the pain of torture? Because you are really, really good at that, Sheppard."
John lifted his gaze sharply to stare at Rodney, who grinned back as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. "You are such a dork."
"Unlike you," John said dryly. "You'd spill your guts and all your personal secrets if someone merely threatened you with torture."
"Yup," Rodney said cheerfully. "At least two Genii and half a dozen Wraith know how I feel about you."
John must have allowed a look a horror cross his face because Rodney snorted and stood up. "Relax, they're hardly in a position to go running to the US military, if that's what you're worried about."
John stood up as well, rising to his feet easily and then slowly uncoiling himself from the chair and pushing it to one side. "Hiding who I am has become a habit, Rodney," he said quietly, half-ashamed of the fact.
"Every aspect, I'd say," Rodney agreed tartly. His face softened and he reached out to give John a friendly push on the shoulder. "I've gotten used to it. It was just nice, you know? Seeing you so open and relaxed for a change. But long-term?" Rodney gave a mock shudder. "It would just be too creepy."
John made a face and pushed Rodney back, in a not-so-friendly fashion.
"I mean, god forbid, you might get all squishy on me," Rodney shot him an evil, crooked smile.
"Squishy," John said dangerously.
Rodney nodded. "Yup. Squishy. And sentimental. I mean, you might start decorating the place with those big Athosian candles and some sparkly metallic thread curtains."
"Teyla gave both of those to me, what was I supposed to do? Tell her the candles and the curtains were too girly for me?" Rodney laughed and ducked as John swatted at him.
"Next thing I know, you'll be wanting to set up a meditation mat in my room..."
"Bite your tongue!" John snarled, leaping forward in an attempt to cover Rodney's laughing mouth with one hand, the force of his forward momentum carrying both of them backwards a step.
"I'd rather bite yours," Rodney said breathlessly, still laughing and John found himself staring back into Rodney's expectant blue eyes.
John's hand shifted of its own accord to cup the back of Rodney's head as he kissed him, feeling the smile on Rodney's lips curve and change into something more hungry. John opened his mouth and deepened the kiss, trying to put everything into his actions that he could not put into words and he felt himself smile when Rodney moaned just a little.
And he snorted when Rodney broke off to give a prodigious, jaw-cracking yawn. "Sorry," Rodney mumbled, a little shamefacedly.
John ignored him to walk Rodney backwards towards his bed. He let John push him down on the mattress. John bent down to lift Rodney's feet and swing them up onto the bed while Rodney yawned again, trying unsuccessfully to mask it. He began to pull up at the hem of his shirt, but John stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"A kiss is not always a prelude to sex, you know."
"It's not? Damn," Rodney said in mock disappointment, but he was smiling when John walked back from the closet with a spare blanket to toss over him. His eyelids kept closing, only to reopen a second later and sag shut again. "Can't sleep long, gotta get back to the repairs."
"Cat nap only," John agreed. "I'll wake you in twenty."
Those expressive blue eyes flew open when Rodney felt John climb onto the bed alongside him. Rodney stared at him for such a long moment that John finally felt compelled to say, "What?"
Rodney closed his eyes then, a huge smile on his face. "You so better be intending to take off those boots if you plan to stay in this bed," he said.
"How could I forget?" John drawled.