Chapter 1: the other girls
John is moving through the halls of Atlantis, his stride even and steady, a brisk walking pace. Through one long, windowless stretch of tunnel beneath the waterline, he skims a hand along the wall closest to him, smooth metal curving up past him to span the ceiling and arc down the other side. Sometimes his fingertips brush against the wall, but mostly they pass over the surface, as if drawing an invisible current.
"Hey," John says, parking a hip against the nearest lab table. It's 2200: past dinner time, but not that late. "Slept recently?"
Rodney waves a hand vaguely in John's direction. "I'll sleep when I'm dead or everyone else in the city is. Go away and let me fix everything that's been irreparably broken in our absence, I'm still on the second week of the changelog."
It's Tuesday, and Atlantis has been theirs for five days. John's pretty sure he's seen Rodney passed out on his keyboard at least once since then, but Rodney's been wearing this shirt since Sunday. "Your toys will still be here in the morning. Promise."
"You are a filthy liar, Sheppard," Rodney says, attention already drifting back to the three monitors in front of him.
"I'll make it worth your while." John pushes at the back of Rodney's chair, turning Rodney toward him. "C'mon."
Once removed from the hothouse cloister of the lab, Rodney wilts and lets John steer him toward the nearest transporter. Senior staff quarters are three levels up and a jog to the right; John usually takes the stairs.
Left to his own devices, Rodney will flop down face-first on his own bed and sleep straight through until morning, but frankly, that's gross, so John undresses them both and drags Rodney into the shower. He's surprised that Rodney doesn't even protest, just leans forward so John can work his hands in the hair at the back of Rodney's neck, draw them up over his ears to scrub his scalp.
"Sorry," Rodney mumbles into John's collarbone. "Not exactly what you meant, huh?"
"It's fine, buddy," John says, rinsing out the last of the shampoo. Okay, it's a little weird, but by now Rodney's body is almost as familiar as his own. They've been thrown naked into a jail cell, stripped to check for necrotic spider bites, undressed to dig the shrapnel out of each other, fucked in front of the locals, even had one extremely awkward threesome with Teyla after Ford―well. "It's fine."
"Cool," Rodney says, and more or less falls asleep on his feet.
John shoves Rodney into his bed, clean, naked, and mostly dry. He doesn't normally spend the night here, but John pulls on a pair of Rodney's boxers and crawls under the covers. He likes sleeping next to Rodney, even though Rodney steals the covers and starfishes around John and snores. His mattress is softer than John's—some kind of fancy orthopedic thing with a pillow top and a firm base.
Right on schedule, Rodney wraps himself around John, pinning John in place with his thigh, rubbing his nose against John's shoulder. His heavy breathing has a soporific effect, and John slips into a lazy doze. The room is dark and their bodies are warm beneath the sheets, sheets that smell like Atlantis, that peculiar smell that's a little musty but crisp and clean at the same time. Unmistakeable: John could catch that scent anywhere and know it.
All he can hear in Rodney's room is the sounds their bodies make, Rodney's loud breaths and his own hushed ones, but John can feel the pulse of Atlantis, the sway of the city in the water, the soft creaking of Ancient pipes, the thrum of people in motion around them. He doesn't want to sleep yet, but he nods off beneath one breath and the next, pulled under by the gentle tide.
"I'm awake," John says, and promptly falls asleep again.
The second time, he comes to with Rodney licking the lobe of his ear. "Say it, or I won't—"
"Higgs boson," John says, and then, "Fuck," because his body's decided to go from zero to eleven with no warning, and Rodney's still holding him down, teasing his ear with his tongue, and making no motions to proceed further. He reaches out to grab Rodney, his arm or his dick or something, but Rodney just bats his hand away.
"Stop it," Rodney exhales into his ear. "I'm working."
Before—well, John never really thought about how Rodney would be in bed until it actually happened, in public and under the influence, which turned Rodney into some kind of enthusiastic consent zealot and still made John hard every time he thought about it, so he tried to avoid the not-strawberries in the mess—anyway, he wouldn't have thought Rodney would be like this, disconcertingly calm and intent while he was doing stuff like tying John to the Ancient furniture and fucking him with a homemade silicone dildo. John never thought of himself as kinky in bed, but with Rodney he can't get enough of it: whatever Rodney wants to do to him, Rodney can do.
Tonight, Rodney wants to bring him off slowly, fucking him with three fingers while he gives John a blowjob that keeps John teetering on the edge for ages. When he comes he feels like he's dissolving from the inside out, his spine snapping up while Rodney pushes down his hips hard enough to bruise. Rodney jerks himself off all over John's belly like he's marking John in some creepy but endearing way.
"Thanks," John says when Rodney gets it together enough to wipe them down with some tissues from the nightstand.
"No problem," Rodney says, yawning.
"Really," John says, scooping up some rogue ricotta with a breadstick.
"If she can get you promoted, she can get me a hot librarian," Rodney huffs.
Teyla raises an eyebrow.
"I have no idea how long it's going to take for our search engine to finishing indexing if we can't prioritize the resources on the mainframe," Rodney says defensively.
At the other end of the table, Ronon clears his throat. "I used to work in a library on Sateda. Before the war." He pauses, then adds, "It was a work-study job."
Elizabeth's unpacking everything she brought from Earth, some of it from boxes with the official SGC stamp. Classified. Here, everything just looks normal, homey, artwork and utilitarian goodwill gifts cozied up like those big-eyed porcelain figurines Mitch's wife used to collect. There are a few new decorations, batik prints hanging over the new walls erected by the Replicators, spartan and white. It reminds John a little of a college dorm room, minus the usual gallery of thumbtacked posters.
"Slowly but surely," Elizabeth says, scrutinizing the carved gourd in her hand. "You know, I can't for the life of me remember what this is."
To John, it looks pretty much like… a gourd. "It's from the people on PX4-798," he says instead. "I think they had a bumper crop when we were there."
"I'll have to ask Teyla." Elizabeth sits the gourd next to a blue clay pipe. "Are you here on official business, John?"
"Just dropping by. I didn't have much to unpack." Putting thumbtacks in Atlantis's walls seemed vaguely profane, so John stole some double-sided tape from Rodney's lab to restore the Man in Black to his place of honor. "Lorne's supervising the new Marines while they deal with inventory."
"I'm sure he's enjoying his return to duty," Elizabeth says. She picks up the binder that John recognizes as her Ancient-to-English dictionary and places it on a free shelf. "It's good to be back. For all of us."
"It was rough back on Earth," John acknowledges. He's gotten used to so many things about Atlantis: the chronic paper shortages, the Ancient toilets that wash your whole bottom, the rainbow of Pegasus root vegetables that the mess can turn into "mashed potatoes," the slightly sulfurous smell of imperfectly filtered Lantean water. It was strange to have abundant TP (he bought twenty-four rolls of Charmin, left twenty-two on Earth), order a real open-faced meatloaf sandwich with mashed potatoes and beef gravy, see bottles of Evian in the SGC's vending machines for a buck.
"I'm sure we would have gotten used to it eventually," Elizabeth says, looking down into one of the boxes with the SGC stamp on the side. "But I'm glad that we didn't have to."
"While it is good that my people now have a permanent home and our own Gate," Teyla shoulders a folded tent, "we cannot just abandon all that we have worked for here."
"Of course," John says, pulling one onto his own shoulders and bowing a little under the strain. "Makes sense."
The Athosian village on the mainland was undisturbed in their absence. There's a little damage from wildlife in the herb gardens, and plenty of maintenance to catch up on, but overall, the village is sound. Teyla looks satisfied when she joins John in the jumper at the end of the day.
"What was that about the arrival of the Ancestors being foretold?" John says after he gets them into the air.
"Oh, it was," Teyla says. "It is said that a time of prosperity and victory will follow their return."
"Huh." John keeps his eyes on the display in front of him.
"Although their swift departure was not mentioned," Teyla adds.
"I see," John says, steering the jumper toward home.
After a month of uneventful trade missions and zero baddies on the horizon, Elizabeth decides they should stand down for two weeks to focus on inventory and paperwork and boring research. This is nice for the underlings, but all the stuff that Rodney hates and John usually ignores or passes on to Lorne. Which is more or less ignoring, something John also prefers to ignore.
"I hate this," John says as he enters the lab. He picks a bay of sensitive equipment to slouch against, then switches to another when he realizes he's leaning on the arm with the still-itchy vaccination site.
Rodney's lying on his back under a desk, doing something with cables; he gives John a once-over and a hopeful look.
John shakes his head. "Teyla's getting to do urban exploration with some of the Marines. I'm pretty sure that Ronon's hooking up with your ex-girlfriend while they figure out a cataloguing scheme. You know what I'm doing? Making the rest of the Marines run laps while I grade Lorne's homework."
"Katie?" Rodney's skeptical face is still funny upside down. "I'm pretty sure he's got something going on with Zelenka. Ronon brings him dinner from the mess sometimes, and he never brings me any food."
"I bring you food," John points out.
"You're the best girlfriend I've ever had," Rodney says sincerely. "Want to give me a blowjob?"
"No," John says, slouching a little more.
"Want to watch TNG and get drunk?"
John sighs. "My beer is a precious resource, Rodney. We can't drink it all at once."
"We're not drinking that swill," Rodney says, and rakes the American brewing industry through the coals. His arms are still flexing and waving below the desk top that truncates John's line of sight. John watches him for a little while before he closes his eyes, the absence of one sense sharpening the others. Listening, he takes in the scuffles and sliding sounds beneath Rodney's tirade, and John imagines the neat competence of Rodney's hands at work, seeing without seeing, knowing. Rodney scoots back after a bit, putting a hand on John's ankle. His palm is soft, but his fingers are rough against John's skin, calloused with the work of this galaxy.
"Look, I liked it." Rodney's voice is quick and low. "I want to fuck you when we both want it. If you want it, I mean. I do, but we don't have to if you don't—"
"I do." John's hands are balled up into fists. He thinks about that sometimes, how his nails bit into his palms, knuckles white. "I just, I don't do this."
"You're my friend," Rodney says, turning to face John, who is still staring at the laptop. Their faces brighten and dim with the motion on the screen. "And I want—I want you. Not somebody else. You like me. I like you." Rodney lifts the hand closest to John, but stops himself before he makes contact. "I don't like a lot of people, as you may have noticed."
John's hands relax; he laughs. "Kind of, yeah."
"Have we talked about feelings enough? Because I think I've met my quota for talking about feelings for the next year."
"Noted." John touches Rodney's knee, slides his hand up Rodney's thigh. Turns his head toward Rodney. "I want."
"Okay," Rodney says, already leaning in.
John finds the whole thing uncomfortable. It was one thing to come to Atlantis and find the city like a summer house shut up for the winter, lights off, furniture draped with sheets to hold back ten thousand years of dust. It's another all together to rummage through the places where they lived and breathed less than two months ago, like their deaths and suffering have Ascended seamlessly into the historical record. As the military commander of Atlantis, John has cleared out more than one set of belongings when there was no clear next of kin in this galaxy. Cleaning up after the deceased is a delicate art: disposing of anything that requires a security clearance, anything a soldier might not want his friends or family to see. Letting the Ancients' possessions be inspected like specimens waiting for glass disturbs him. There is no one to close out their lives or protect their secrets.
He finds Elizabeth sitting on the lowest landing of the stairs by the tower's lone active transporter when he stops by one evening, hands cupped around a mug of coffee. "I didn't expect to see you up here," she says, smiling. "This is a civilian operation. Were you curious?"
"Not really," John says. "Just hoping to find you."
Elizabeth scoots over to make room for him, so he sits down beside her, letting his legs hang over onto the stairs. "On duty or off?"
"Off, but I had a few questions about all this." He gestures upward. "You feel like it's appropriate?"
Elizabeth tilts her head up, as if her line of sight isn't cut off by the stairs. "This is probably our only opportunity to have this kind of access to Ancient presence in Atlantis, John, and it's unprecedented. Maybe it can help answer some of our questions about the city's technology. We're certainly learning a great deal about the Ancients' material culture."
"They're kind of recently dead," John points out. "It seems a little… soon, don't you think?"
"Or on a higher plane, above these concerns," she says. "It's not that I haven't given this some thought. I know that there are some ethical problems with what we're doing. There's no next of kin, though. There's just us."
"That's what I meant." One of the anthropologists—Dr. Russell, who's new—comes down the stairs, so John scoots toward the other side of the stairs to let him pass by.
Elizabeth turns toward him, leans across the gap so she can lower her voice. "John, please don't fight me on this. This is what we came here to do."
"That's what anthropology came here to do," John says. "You and I are here to lead this expedition. We're supposed to focus on the live people. The people who didn't invite their robots in to kill them and who we're currently trying to keep not dead."
"The Replicators wouldn't have harmed anyone if Rodney hadn't reprogrammed Niam. And we're the ones," generously, she doesn't say you, "who woke up the Wraith."
"We don't know for sure whether or not Rodney was responsible," he says. "I'm the one who has to hold the line on both fronts, Elizabeth. Is it really necessary to allocate all of these resources to combing through Ancient trash cans?"
"It's worth it to me." Elizabeth takes a sip of her cooling coffee. "We're going through their databases and their records for new information. This isn't so different."
"Right." John gets to his feet, pulls a half-smile. "Well, I'll leave you to it, then."
"John," Elizabeth says, frowning, "I—"
"It's fine," he says. "Really. It's fine."
"Can you not speak to Elizabeth?" Teyla folds her flatbread into quarters. It's an Athosians staple that the old hands on Atlantis have also picked up a taste for. The bread goes pretty well with the sort-of-ranch dip that the cooks have come up with, though Teyla usually slathers it with sweet soy sauce.
"I did," he asks. "She thinks the opportunity overrides her, you know, ethics."
"I spoke with her also, at the start," Teyla says, setting the bread down. "I do not think she takes our concerns lightly, but I cannot agree with her."
"This whole thing feels wrong." John meets her eyes.
She nods. "Your people have—struggled, to connect with others in this galaxy. You come not with things to trade but weapons in hand. To treat the Ancestors' lives in such a way makes us foreign."
John knows that the translation capacities of the Gate are failing them here. He can hear in Teyla's voice that she has used a word stronger than foreign, stronger than alien: a word that does not make sense in any Tau'ri language John knows, where humanity is the gauge for the value of life.
When Teyla finishes her meal, he says, "Walk with me?" in a casual tone.
"Of course." She gives him one of her serene smiles.
Teyla inclines her head toward him. "Not Elizabeth?"
John takes a deep breath. "No."
Teyla raises her eyebrows, but says nothing further. She doesn't have to. John's disobeyed direct orders before, but direct circumvention of civilian leadership is something else entirely. Elizabeth knows seemingly everything that goes on in Atlantis almost before it happens—where to find John if he's not in his quarters at 0100, the route of Ronon's morning runs, everyone's deep dissatisfaction with the plumbing in Tower 4— but this is something that Elizabeth will not anticipate, because at the core, she believes they all have Earth's interests at heart.
After a while, they stop at one of the windows that look out over the Lantean sea. The light pollution from the buildings closest to them obscures the view; there's more of their reflection than what lies beyond. "Do you want me to keep searching on my own?" Teyla asks.
"You should take Ronon. There's a lot of water damage. It's better not to go alone."
"That is wise," she concedes. Her fingers trace the side of the window absently. "Someone else should know."
"Rodney," he says, answering her unasked question. "You can tell Rodney."
When the sun rises over Lantea it coasts over John in a wave. His head is hanging off the end of the bed, so he sees the purple haze of night recede beneath the waxing saffron glow like fields in Rothko painting. When he closes his eyes, the colors reverse themselves into dawn. Everything narrows down to Rodney's tongue on him and there is nothing better than this, nothing, it's flying a puddlejumper up into orbit and it's completely different and just the same. John reaches down and tugs on Rodney's arm, and Rodney slides up and presses his dick into that same slick spot of John's hip as John kisses him, sloppy and hungry, he doesn't care. They rub off against each other and Rodney pins his hands down and it's so good, he wants it to go on and on forever.
Later, John says, "Before you came here, what did you imagine it'd be like?"
"I read a book where the aliens were intelligent bears and jellyfish." Rodney's slipped around to John's back and draped an arm over him, tugging him close. "I didn't think everywhere we went would be so much like Earth. It's statistically improbable."
"Everywhere with a gate."
"Hello," Rodney says, "PhD in astrophysics here!"
The sun is in John's eyes. He turns over and tucks his head under Rodney's, presses his lips against Rodney's neck. They usually skip the post-coital cuddling, but they're on Earth's clock now, not Pegasus's. Maybe he can justify dozing until 0800.
In retrospect, he really shouldn't have underestimated a man who keeps knives in his hair.
After Ronon sends the third of John's dwindling supply of golf balls somewhere into the stratosphere, he steps back from the tee and clears his throat. "There some point to this?"
"It goes better when you have an actual course," John says weakly. The fake grass crunches under his feet. After the months he'd spent months hunting down the Pegasus equivalent of AstroTurf, he really hadn't anticipated breaking it in with crushing defeat. "This is just… practice."
"Boring," Ronon says, handing back John's nine-iron. "Didn't McKay make you some tiny jumpers? With remotes?"
At first, John worried that he and Rodney were a little obvious. DADT was a joke on an internationally-staffed outpost in another galaxy with a population of less than 300, but he couldn't shake the vague specter of US military review, that someone would decide that where a black mark hadn't done the job, a rainbow one might do. Since John couldn't bring himself to tell Rodney not to build him remote-controlled miniature puddlejumpers and willingly share his dessert, he resigned himself to flirting with alien women in front of the Marines and trying to look heterosexual.
Six weeks on Earth and a promotion later, John found out from Teyla that the rest of the base thought his unabashed gayness was so over the top that they were imagining it. He gave up.
And he's not letting Ronon touch his jumpers.
"Not for flying over open water," John says. "Jesus."
"Okay," Ronon says, looking amused. He hangs out while John packs up his golf clubs.
"Did Teyla talk to you?" John says, zipping the top of his golf bag, "About looking around."
"Yeah." Ronon crosses his arms. "I want to."
"Good," John says. "That's good."
"It's a big city," Ronon says, looking up.
Atlantis looks strange at this angle, distended, towers gleaming under the sun. John rarely goes outside during the day; sometimes he and Rodney drink beer on the southeast pier at night, or he flies Teyla out to the Athosian settlement on the mainland, but that's about it. It's easy to forget how big the city is and how little of it they call their own. Moving from transporter to transporter inside, John's lost the momentary disorientation that he felt on Earth when emerging from a subway to the busy world above. Outside, Atlantis appears still, sleeping, more like the ghost of a metropolis than the thing itself.
Chapter 2: it's all right, just leave the light on
The next week threatens to pass just as sluggishly, and might have if Rodney hadn't gone on a quest to shut down everything the Ancients turned on that's now draining their generators. Before they know what it is, the Ascension machine seems pretty cool—who wouldn't sign up for superhero powers? Not John, anyway—despite Rodney's habit of stealing donuts and finding little ways to drive them all crazy. It's all fun and games right up until the part where they find out Rodney's probably going to die.
Elizabeth calls him into her office and asks him to coach Rodney in meditation. "Your time spent with the Ancients in the time dilation field must have been informative," she says.
"Why not Teyla?" John says. He raises his hands, spreads them wide. "She's… good at that stuff. What with actually being good at it."
"I think you have something important to contribute," Elizabeth says firmly, trying to do that thing where she conveys a hidden message with her eye movements. John fixes his gaze just past her, on the collection of Pegasus fertility idols that various planetary leaders have offered in tribute. He wonders if Elizabeth put them behind her desk to distract visitors, or just so she doesn't have to look at them.
John stands, turns toward the door. "I don't think there's anything I can teach him," he says. "With those Ancients… I fought a big scary monster—that's what I do best."
"And for Rodney, I'm sure this seems like a big scary monster."
He holds up a hand again, warding her off. "Don't. Please."
But somehow, Elizabeth being Elizabeth, here he is, trying to teach Rodney how to breathe deeply and reliving one of the most boring and deeply shitty times of his life. It was like boarding school without the assurance that he'd eventually escape. Or TV.
"I'm not finding this very helpful," Rodney says, sitting up. John borrowed some candles from Teyla to make his room more relaxing. Maybe he should have just found some flower petals Rodney isn't allergic to and covered the bed in them, dug up some classical music on the media server, gone whole hog.
"I was never very good at meditation," John confesses. He tries to sit on the golf magazine he's been flipping through without creasing any of the pages. "The instructor was really…"
Rodney twirls his fingers impatiently. "Yeah, heard the trials of your months of celibacy before, blah blah blah."
"Right," John says sourly. "Want to take it from the top?"
That night, John can't sleep. He goes to Rodney's quarters, lets himself in, does that thing where he stares at Rodney creepily for a few moments before he climbs into bed. Rodney's been staying up all night, working himself into the ground, but even this highly-evolved, accelerated version of Rodney had to crash sometime. Now, Rodney is out, so soundly asleep that he doesn't respond even as the mattress dips, though his limbs move easily to accommodate John's when John throws an arm and a leg over him, reversing their usual positions.
There are some things John doesn't let himself contemplate, doesn't let himself consider as possibilities, refuses to accept. Rodney's death is one of those things, but Ascension wasn't even on John's radar. Now John feels like a ghost himself, like he's only halfway present, like only the reality of Rodney is tethering him here. He keeps his hands on Rodney, solid and warm and sleeping now. It's childish, but John doesn't want to go to sleep, knowing Rodney won't be here when he wakes up, will have gone off to his day, his last days, maybe, trying to Ascend instead of find a real solution.
The night Rodney doesn't die, he says to John, "If we find anything else like that machine, we should permanently disable it."
"Elizabeth didn't convince you of the glories of Ancient enlightenment?" John says, sitting on the edge of the infirmary bed. Carson's around somewhere, probably writing up case notes, but otherwise the infirmary is deserted. That suits John just fine. He doesn't want anyone to see him like this, hands bunched in Rodney's sheets. He doesn't want Rodney to see him like this, but here he is, here he is.
"No," Rodney says, like John's an idiot or something. "In case you haven't notice, I'm right here, being forcibly rehydrated. And I'm serious. Didn't you notice how everyone bought into this bullshit about Ascension, that it's some kind of great thing to be absorbed into the big shiny light? Did it occur to no one that it's basically some celestial Borg?"
"Hey, Jeri Ryan," John says. "But. I'll tell Ronon and Teyla. They've been looking around the city. The parts we haven't explored yet."
Rodney tilts his head. "Why?" he says, voice quieter. "Did Elizabeth—"
"I asked them." John shifts on the bed. "Elizabeth doesn't know."
"What are they looking for?" Rodney asks. He leans closer; his face is still pale and damp. "How long have they been looking?"
John relaxes one hand, lifts it to rub the back of his neck. "Since we found that tower." He doesn't have to specify which one. "I told them to tell you, too, if they found something. Nothing yet."
"There's something," Rodney says. "There will be something. Look, I haven't finished going through the changelog—everything the Ancients did when they were here. They turned on all kinds of systems, systems that never showed up before, that I didn't know we had, and I can't figure out what all of them are from the commands alone. Some of them are defensive, but not all of them. Like that machine." Rodney rubs at his face. He looks tired.
The infirmary is still empty when John scans the room. He gives in, swings his legs up on the bed, pillows his head on Rodney's side. "Sorry," he mumbles.
"Oh," Rodney says, and then, "I came back! It's okay now."
John lets Rodney run his fingers through his hair until Carson comes out of his office and pretends not to see them.
Atlantis is alight with new lights, old lights that John can see from the pier. He sees them while he's asleep, dreaming: the movement from transporter to transporter, the way that new footsteps tread old halls, like long rays of sun across the floor of his room in the morning, warming up the city from the inside, waking it. Atlantis gleams bright, brighter, obscuring everything but the dark backdrop of the night sky.
Sometimes, John thinks about the time when he turned all the lights on, even without a key.
As usual, John is the last one in attendance at the morning staff meeting; when he strolls in, Rodney hooks an ankle around the chair next to him and scoots it out from the table a bit. Then John looks around him and has to double-check to make sure it's not a meeting with SGA-1.
"I'm head of the library now." Ronon grins. "Library Specialist Dex. That's what I'm making them call me." He's wearing a leather vest and his hair's pinned up with what appears to be a stylus. John tries to imagine him with pince-nez and his brain breaks a little.
"How long did you work in a library?" he asks, taking a seat.
"All through school," Ronon says modestly. "What you call college. Did a program in creative writing before I joined the army."
"Ronon was just telling us about his novel," Teyla says. "It was published by a small press on Sateda, but I am hopeful one of our trading partners may find us a copy."
Upon closer inspection, John notices that Rodney, unusually silent, looks a bit shell-shocked.
Elizabeth calls them to order. "Teyla? Gentlemen?"
"I have some news to share," Teyla says. "My people are preparing to harvest their first successful crop of taun, the grain with which we make tanur ale. On Athos, we held a festival in the autumn to celebrate the harvest, when we drank the finest of our ale. Perhaps some on Atlantis might like to join us on New Athos this year?"
"Sign me up," says Ronon, who is taking notes in precise, blocky Satedan print on honest-to-God paper. With a ballpoint pen.
Teyla sets her hands in her lap. "That is all," she says, smiling.
"Rodney?" Elizabeth says, checking something on her datapad.
Rodney looks up from his datapad, blinking. "Hmm? Oh, yes. Yet again, botany has approached me about access to the new databases, for reasons that I can't fathom given that Dr. Brown is Ronon's assistant." John kicks Rodney's ankle under the table.
"Yeah," Ronon says. "Not everything you gave me access to is unlocked, McKay. There's a map for specimen collection points under the waterline, plants and animals, but it's a folder that requires higher clearance. That'd be you or Zelenka."
"I can't believe I'm about to say this," Rodney says, "but I'm going to have to make you a sysadmin on the Atlantis mainframe. Read privileges only."
"Need a better dictionary, too." Ronon lifts the battered Ancient-to-Satedan volume he liberated from a public library on his trip to Sateda. "There's some stuff that's not in here and Katie hasn't seen before. Not in your dictionary, either."
"Noted," Elizabeth says. "Although I'm not sure we have the resources to authorize another trip to Sateda immediately for a long-term project. Sorry, Ronon."
Ronon cracks his knuckles. "It's cool."
There's a momentary pause as everyone looks at their copies of the meeting agenda, except for John, to whom all paperwork is, well, paperwork.
"So," Rodney says. "How are we feeling about making those marshmallow things from PX9-472 a regular item on the dinner menu? Because I, for one, could really go for a Jell-O salad every now and then."
The other thing about Rodney's blowjobs is that sometimes, they seem to confer Rodney's genius on John's blissed-out cerebral cortex. That's John's only explanation for why he interrupts Rodney right after Rodney's done that hot nurse snappy thing with one of the nitrile gloves he stole from the infirmary, lubed it up, and started moving his hand slowly but steadily downward toward John's happy places.
"Did you ever use Babelfish?" John blurts out.
"Uh, doesn't exist? Also, gate tech?" Rodney frowns; he doesn't usually like being interrupted. His gloved hand is still hovering over John's dick. "Oh, Altavista. That's disgusting."
"You're about to put your fingers in my ass," John says, closing his eyes, pushing up so that the fingers in question brush against him.
"Yes, that's right, that's why I'm wearing a glove. Not an explanation for why you're asking about shitty internet translation programs."
Now John's getting impatient: his train of thought completely derails. "And then you're going to put your dick in my ass," he says. "Right?"
"If you're lucky," Rodney says ominously. Then he gets down between John's spread legs again and John forgets all about the internet and the first time he discovered gay porn online and how his favorite site was in Portuguese but he never bothered to learn enough to navigate the menus without assistance. It's pretty irrelevant now that he's in another galaxy and Rodney, yeah, and John doesn't even mind letting Rodney fuck his throat later, not at all.
"That was a good idea you had," Rodney says afterward, coming out of the bathroom. "About shitty internet translation programs. If they're only working from Elizabeth's notes, of course they're missing stuff. I don't know why no one thought about this before."
"No blowjobs," John mumbles into the pillow. His hips are twisted kind of funny and a lot of him is waving out in the breeze, but the will to move is severely lacking.
Rodney tugs the blanket over him and pats him on the shoulder. "With great power comes great responsibility," he says, shoving John over to the other side of the bed.
"Haha," John says, or thinks he does, just before he falls asleep.
"I confess, I found this more restful in my youth," Teyla says, rising up from a crouch to stretch. She braces the small of her back with a hand and looks out on the remainder of the bushes that the two of them are responsible for. "Or perhaps more tempted by the promise of merol preserves."
"I've never had merol berries before," John says, eyeing his basket. It's nearing the end of the second day. He's afraid to move from his cramped stance, in case his spine decides it's not willing to roll back up, so he's been hobbling from bush to bush for the better part of an hour.
"Very tart," Teyla says, in that same voice she uses to warn him about unfamiliar customs offplanet.
"Yeah, yeah." John gives in at last, tilts back onto his heels, then slowly, one by one, extends his legs. For a moment, he's dizzy, lightheaded, as his blood rushes back into all the places it's supposed to go.
Teyla must see something of that in his face, because she puts out a hand to steady him. Her fingers are smeared with merol juice, vivid green, and they leave a slightly sticky trail in their wake. "You must drink," she says, and fetches their canteens.
The sun's low enough in the sky that it doesn't wipe out his vision when John eases himself down onto the grass. He closes his eyes and feels a breeze drift over his face, cool the sweat on his brow. Maybe he and Teyla have done enough for today; they've certainly passed the halfway mark.
Grass crunches behind him, and after a moment, his canteen is pressed into his hand. "Merol berries do not sit well with me now," Teyla confesses. "But I am so often absent. They cannot see all that we do for them in Atlantis, but they can see our work here."
"It's okay." His muscles are slowly relaxing, adjusting to the release of rest on sturdy ground. "I know that. And it's—good, that the Wraith and the city, it's not all we do. We're doing it for this."
"And Earth," Teyla says.
"And Earth," John says. The Milky Way seems so far away right now. He didn't spend his childhood picking ripe blackberries in the field; he spent it in boarding school, reading poems by Seamus Heaney.
"Halling thinks it is time for me to bear a child." Teyla's voice is softer, but closer now, as she lies down next to him. "With one of my people."
"Wow." That's all John can say. He opens his eyes and everything's bright, too bright, even lazy white clouds on blue sky.
"My people need—hope. A reminder that although Athos is lost, we remain, we survive."
"They want some security," he says before he can stop himself.
"Mmm," Teyla says, pauses. "Yes. That is true. What I do is dangerous. It takes me far from my people, from their—our—way of life."
"No," she says, very gently. "No, John. I would not leave Atlantis. A child is not where our future is."
"Do you think, that you'll…" John can't quite get the words out.
"There is little harm in trying," Teyla says.
They lie like that for a while, waiting for someone to call them back or come find them. John could lie like this forever. He was born to have clean, soft, white hands, not calloused hands scratched and stained with the fruit of another galaxy. Nothing he's done was on the path set out of him; his whole life, he's been steadily hurling himself out of orbit.
John looks over and sees Teyla with her eyes closed, face turned up to the fading light. At first glance, she looks delicate, auburn hair whisping around her face where it's escaped the elastic band at the nape of her neck, framing the curves of her ear and her jaw. The arm next to him, though, is strong, muscled. On her, the marks of merol juice are the sigils of a queen.
The sun is still moving over head, westward, the same direction as Earth's own sun. It's an illusion, of course: it's they who are spinning, turning away into the ever-pressing night.
Rodney scans them with the optical reader on his datapad and comes up with zilch. "Something new," he says, "or at least there's no record of it we have yet. Huh."
"The anthropologists are going to shit themselves," Ronon says cheerfully, cutting back some more brush with a machete.
John sits down gingerly on a low wall. Despite age and crumbling stones, it's sound. "It's not upside down or anything?"
"Do you think I'm stupid? This corrects for reversed and improperly oriented text, thank you very much." Rodney's gotten very serious about the alpha version of Project Less Shitty Pegasus Babelfish.
"These are very old," Teyla says, bending to run her fingers over the figures on the threshold of a doorway. The three buildings they've uncovered look like the remains of a village for very tall people; there's not much intact beyond half-fallen walls, columns, and one staircase with three-foot-high steps climbing the face of the cliff behind them, ascent punctuated by an abrupt, sheer drop. "I have seen something like this before, a font in the forests of Athos, some days' hike from our village. It is—was—traditional for young women to bathe there when they first had their courses."
They have to leave at the end of the day, thanks to the planet's tendency to drop to subzero temperatures at nightfall. John expects he'll return, but things get busy with the Replicators for a while and he never does make it back. Two of the anthropologists end up going with Cadman and Lorne, but most of them are still focused on the recently abandoned rooms in the city. When the mission report arrives on his desk, jumbled up with the rest of them, John signs off on it without reading a word.
Rodney claims he is not hiding from the rampaging hordes of tech-averse soft scientists, but is in fact performing a very necessary systems check on the transporter system. John doesn't really mind if it means he gets to sit in the Chair.
"Get in, get in," Rodney says, flicking his fingers at him and dropping a much-abused laptop bag by the Chair Room door.
John's already sitting down, lying back, letting Atlantis settle itself into his brain. It feels natural—more than natural, right. Hey, he says, and the city greets him with a stream of information that slides into his brain like a graceful woman lowering herself into the world's most comfortable… Chair. Right. He calls up a visual map of the transporter systems with Rodney, which is when he notices something odd. Even before Rodney does.
"There's more stuff on here now," John says, confused. "The transporters we're using—they're the main ones, but they're not the only ones. They're like Atlantis's public transit. We've only got full access to a fifth, maybe a quarter of the city right now."
"They're still not showing up on the main map," Rodney says, checking his datapad, but he cranes his head up to see the one that John's projecting. "Huh. Whoa."
While Rodney runs the numbers to see if they can afford the extra drain on the generators or the ZPM, John flicks through the rest of the system to see if anything else has shown up. Rodney should have been able to see all of this the last time he was in the Chair, putting his heightened genius to work, but there's far more accessible to John than there's ever been before. "Hey," he says. "Want me to fix the plumbing in tower 4? I think I can do that now."
"Very funny," Rodney says.
"No, really." John cycles through the newly visible auto-repair settings for sanitation. "There. Do you want me to do a full system scan, or will that pull too much power?"
Rodney glances up again quickly, does a double-take. "What the—how did you find that?"
"Just showed up," John says, flicking through more menus. Huh. They have Ancient TV. With pay-per-view.
"I'm still on week two of the changelog from when were gone," Rodney moans. He prods his datapad futilely. "That must be it, it must be in there. They must have unlocked the Chair, too, but it's keyed to you, of course, of course, why didn't I—"
"Does this make me King of Atlantis?" John asks.
He means it as a joke, but Rodney looks serious. "Well, kind of." He adds, "Maybe, while you're in the Chair, you should establish a clear line of succession."
"I don't know, Rodney," he says, trying to keep things light. "Wouldn't want to tempt you with the key to all this Ancient technology."
"I meant Elizabeth," Rodney says, staring at him.
"I knew that," John says, sitting up. The Chair goes quiet, dark.
It turns out that they don't have the power to turn on the secondary transporter system. Elizabeth looks disappointed until John tells her about the plumbing. She gives him a cookie. John surrenders it to Rodney so he can feel a little less like a jackass.
Atlantis is a city the size of Manhattan and no one person could ever map it fully on foot, not in anyone's lifetime. John moves through it like a ghost, looking without touching, intangible, transient. Not trespassing. Sometimes he thinks that if he touches anything, he'll wake, she'll wake. Rupture or rapture.
The city's walls open for him without asking.
Chapter 3: the color runs out
Before, their movements were aimless, uninformed. This time, they move out from the city center to the hubs on the periphery, the older towers. They follow Rodney's instructions to hotwire the doors that won't open for them, cracking open the panels next to the door and inspecting the crystals. Ronon carries a bundle of working spares, neatly wrapped, in his pack; Teyla's smaller fingers do the work of sliding the correct ones into place. They have other gear with them—first aid kit, rappelling gear—in case they encounter trouble, but by the third day, they find that the routes with the most willing doors are the ones most likely to have floors, walls, and systems intact.
In one tower, they find a vast greenhouse with a curved pool, all of it paused in suspended animation, literally frozen behind glass. In another, they find a long, low-ceilinged room, walls hung with covered frames. When Teyla pulls the protective cloth off one of them and uses it to dust the canvas beneath, she reveals a picture—a portrait—rendered in paint that is luminescent, pale hued, skilled brushwork covering the canvas with a translucent wash. There are balconies everywhere, jutting off rooms, buffeting staircases, branching off the halls themselves, offering numerous views of the city and countless vistas of the Lantean waters outside. Neither Teyla nor Ronon linger at any of them.
"Hey," John says. He steps into Elizabeth's office and the door slides shut behind him. "You wanted to see me?"
"John," she says warmly, looking across as he slides into the seat opposite her desk. "Yes. It's just about the mission roster. Chuck had the idea to go through the dialing records from when the crew of the Tria were here. There are eight planets we haven't established contact with yet where they spent several days—perhaps old trading partners. I'd like SGA-1 and SGA-2 to check them out."
"Sure," John says. The assignment makes sense—his team and Lorne's have the most successful histories with first contacts. Lorne, Cadman, Simpson, and Dr. Patek have worked together for over a year and barter almost as well as Teyla with the regular trading partners assigned to them. They came out of the one Genii ambush they ran into with no injuries more serious than Simpson's broken collarbone. "I can put Stackhouse on most of the milk runs for a while, and Edison and Jordan can ferry botany and anthropology around."
"Wonderful." Elizabeth shuffles some of the papers on her desk.
She doesn't dismiss him, so John hangs around. "Was there something else?"
Elizabeth straightens in her chair, lips tightening like she's considering her words. "Have you felt… grateful? To the crew of the Tria?"
"Not really," John says, which is the understatement of this millennia. "Why?"
"We've—I have—spent so much time trying to understand the Ancients," she says slowly. "Everything they've done—their philosophy, their scientific achievements, what they did in our galaxy, not only in Pegasus. I wish we'd be able to maintain a relationship with them, work with them, that they hadn't—well. But already, I'm learning so much more, you know?"
It's not that John's surprised, exactly, but—Jesus, this, coming from the woman who locked herself in her apartment and ate take-out for six weeks when they were kicked out of the city? "Elizabeth." He leans forward, toward her, takes a breath and tries for gentle. "You like them better dead," he says. "Well, so do I."
Elizabeth's face blanches, like she hasn't heard what just came out of her own mouth. "That's not true." she says. "John. I didn't—"
"They took our city." he says. It feels good to say it out loud. "We took it back. You were here, you came with me, we did it together."
"They built this city."
"We raised it," John says. "They left it behind. They gave up on this galaxy and they ran away. We didn't."
Elizabeth has nothing to say to that.
"What are you going to do if another Ancient ship turns up?" John asks. "Because I'm not doing that again. The Ancients thought they were smarter than we are. They trusted the Replicators because they thought they were stupid, too."
"Rodney thinks he's smarter than us."
John would believe Elizabeth's light tone if he didn't know her so well. As it is, he gets to his feet. "Rodney is," John says. "He's more paranoid than we are."
The Nesenta are a friendly, welcoming people who've escaped the devastation of the Wraith for several generations. They accept Teyla's explanation that they're the new representatives from Atlantis without much questioning, and the eldest son of the village leader is thrilled to meet Ronon.
"After we heard of the culling of Sateda, I was much grieved," Timeris says, pressing his hand to his chest. His dusky cheeks are slightly flushed. "Gorgas Fell has been such an inspiration to me—it changed my life when I was a young man."
"He read it so many times, he wore out his first copy," his mother says, smiling. She adjusts the purple stole draped over her shoulders. "Timeris, surely you could spare the better, as Ser Dex has lost his?"
"I have your chapbook as well," Timeris says, golden eyelashes fluttering. "If you wanted that as well, I'm sure one of my brothers could copy it over for you."
"Thanks," Ronon says gruffly. "That's very kind of you."
Timeris sighs. If John rolls his eyes a little before Teyla digs her elbow into his ribs, well, he can't be blamed too much. Rodney at least manages not to visibly drop his jaw this time.
They get a good deal on the crunchy root vegetable that tastes like broccoli and will probably go great with ranch dressing, as well as some of the most recent grain harvest. Timethia and her sons invite the team to sit up on their dias. Timeris feeds Ronon delicacies like kind-of-sparrow's heart and unpronounceable-thing's liver, fingers brushing delicately against Ronon's lips.
"This is worse than you and your alien women," Rodney hisses in John's ear in between shoveling forkfuls of savory pie into his mouth. "I'm serious."
"He's prettier," John says, anticipating the elbowing this time.
Ronon leans back to let Timeris drop a probably-grape into his mouth and a tendril escapes from Timeris's intricately plaited blonde locks.
"Quite," says Teyla wistfully.
Teyla and Ronon spend most of their time playing Parthenan volleyball, which is apparently an important part of trade negotiations. Rodney, of course, managed to sneak a few Ancient folding chairs and the Athosian equivalent of a beach umbrella into the jumper, so he can hide from the sunlight and get back to reviewing week four of the changelog from the Ancient reoccupation in peace.
They get onto the beach early on the second day, about 1000 by Lantean time. John spreads his beach towel out over the blueish-white sand, lies down on his stomach, and naps. Before he wakes, he hangs in the window between sleep and full consciousness for a while, listening to soothing lap of waves against the shore, the flap of the umbrella in the breeze, and the familiar percussion of Rodney's fingers on the datapad. John rolls over onto his back, covering his eyes from the two risen suns with one arm while he fumbles for his sunglasses with the other.
"You're going to get skin cancer," Rodney says.
"You put three coats of sunscreen on me earlier," John says, finally tracking down his aviators. He shakes the sand off before he slides them on.
"Yes, well, there's three suns in this system, in case you've forgotten."
Some digging in the bag produces the second datapad, and John settles in to read. He turns on his side, taking advantage of the shade afforded by his body to avoid glare on the screen. Gorgas Fell is long, but it's a fast read and an engrossing one: a few hours yesterday and John's halfway through. It's a classic coming-of-age tale—the protagonist is a young man who leaves school and takes up a nomadic life to look for prehistoric ruins throughout the galaxy. John reads until the third sun hovers on the horizon and the arm he's putting his weight on starts to go numb; the passing of time takes him by surprise when he turns over to relieve the pressure.
"Good book, huh?" Rodney leans back in his chair and stretches with a long sigh.
"Yeah." John rolls back his own tense shoulders. "Want to go inside for a while?"
"Daiquiris," Rodney says dreamily.
"Those, too," John says.
Despite Rodney's concerns, John doesn't get sunburned at all. Ronon and Teyla defeat the reigning volleyball champions and the Parthenans encourage them to come back any time. They even throw in a bonus crate of pineapples.
All of the friendly planets on the Ancient roster have done their part in lulling John into an easygoing, overconfident mood. It's hard to maintain his frustration with—his anger at—the crew of the Tria when he goes from one planet to another and finds each time that the Ancients have already worked their way through the frustrating and humiliating parts of the welcome rituals. Maybe they were exempt where they were still revered as Ancestors, but that was something for Teyla or the anthropologists to figure out.
Olanthe doesn't turn out to be particularly reverent. Overall, it's a little more dagger-to-the-gut than John anticipated.
In the ten minutes before he passes out, John has some time to reflect on everything. Really, if someone on his team has to get injured, this is the best possible outcome—he hates the long hours in the infirmary he spends worrying and helpless by bedsides and waiting in chairs, he hates the long hours waiting for news when it's really bad. John hates being stuck in the infirmary, too, but at least it's a distraction. He'll be in the infirmary a while this time, he figures, judging how everything goes hot and dark whenever he gets jolted, slung over Ronon's shoulder as they make a break for the Gate. It occurs to him that he's probably in shock, and then nothing at all occurs to him for a while.
John tries to lift a hand and gets his index finger about two inches up. "Hey," he croaks. "How's it going?"
"We have been concerned," she says, pouring a cup of water and adding a bendy straw before she brings it to his lips. "Carson assured us that you would likely make a full recovery, but he induced a coma to allow you to heal."
Yuck. "How long have I been out?" John asks.
"A few days."
Well, that explains why Teyla's here and why his mouth tastes like he's been eating some really gross peanut butter. "Made Rodney sleep, huh?"
"I entrusted the task to Ronon," she says, averting her eyes. "He was keen to have some occupation."
"Good," John says.
The next time he wakes up, Rodney's there, all puffed up with righteous fury. It's probably the drugs, but John feels overwhelmed, like he wants to say things that will embarrass him a lot later.
Fortunately, Rodney saves him. "Don't you say a word, Colonel Death Wish," he says in a low, rushed whisper, probably so the nurses won't kick him out for yelling at John. "I am sick and tired of your idiotic code of honor and your transparent desire to die. And by transparent, I mean blatantly obvious leaping into the path of oncoming bladed weapons which, by the way, would have hit me somewhere way less painful, by which I mean my shoulder, given that I had bent over to tie my shoe."
"They were going to take you hostage," John protests. "Your shoulder is pretty close to your neck. I mean, your neck is—"
"Thank you for the anatomy lesson, I'm relieved that you've assuaged my worries about any recent brain damage."
"I feel funny," John says. He's not sure whether he's talking about his feelings or his growing awareness that he has a torso, or maybe both.
"Somehow, I am not surprised," Rodney says. "Carson? I think someone over here needs more morphine."
A few times in the middle of the night, John surfaces into the realm of consciousness and annoying beeping monitors. Rodney feeds him ice cubes and yells at him very quietly and chafes his hands when they get cold. John doesn't say anything embarrassing. It's very nice, aside from the abdominal wound.
At least he has an excuse to keep his hours from 1000 to 1600 in his rarely-used office, sitting in the least torturous chair that Stackhouse could find. Rodney brings him extra jello from the mess, Ronon brings him extra pudding from the mess, and Teyla usually walks him back to his quarters at the end of the day.
"May I stop at my room on the way?" she asks today.
"Sure." After spending all day with his ass in Ancient traction, walking through the city is a relief. John is moving slower than usual, but the trip home no longer wears him out. Although Teyla's room isn't far from a transporter, the distance is the longest he's walked in a few weeks. It's a good sign that she thinks it's time for John to start pushing himself a little.
When they arrive at her room, though, Teyla invites him in and closes the door behind them. She inclines her head toward the bed, but John props himself against the wall rather than waste the energy.
"Ronon and I have found many things," Teyla says, standing next to him. "Some things that should be shared with others. Ronon believes he has the resources to… facilitate their discovery, when the time is right."
"Yeah," John says. "We should do that." It's strange, the moment where the tension in his body loosens.
"Last night, we found three rooms that look to have been occupied. The damage in that tower is substantial; they are the only rooms we can access that high up."
"The crew's quarters?" Somehow, he knows before Teyla shakes her head.
"These are older," she says. "Much older. They were not… prepared before the Ancestors' departure, like the rest of Atlantis, although the city's support systems must have operated until recently."
"That's weird," John says, crossing his arms.
Teyla's mouth turns down. "Yes."
"I want to see them," he says. "I can't—not right now—"
"They'll wait," Teyla says. "They've kept until now."
Most of the rooms that the personnel of Atlantis have taken for their own seemed bleak in the abstract—less hospital room than Earth hotel room, one of those with identical comforters turned down on queen beds and heavy drapes hung in the window, AC unit bulging beneath them. The rooms on Atlantis quickly took on personalities, though, as if they'd been blank canvases waiting, expectant. Teyla's bed has a heavy quilt draped over the mattress beneath, the pillows atop plump and inviting. Candles sit on almost every open surface. There's a basket teeming with fabric scraps and something larger that's dull in the shadows but looks like it would shine with proper light. John doesn't know where she got these things, although he must have been there when she traded for some of them. The candles look Athosian-made, but where did they get the wax? Since when does Teyla sew?
"Keep looking," he says.
"I will," Teyla says. "We must."
The three rooms each have small cooking areas and cabinets for food storage. They each have a single bed. One of the beds is neatly made; the other two lie in disarray. Only one room has an external data terminal. There are no closets. Two rooms had small containers for planting on the windowsill before, but they are gone now. All of the rooms have carpeting outside the cooking area, soft with a low pile.
The closest transporter lies behind the locked bulkhead, but these three rooms remain reachable by stair.
"You know what would be really cool?" John says, altering the flight path of his own so it doesn't crash into Rodney's on the next loop around. "If I could control these with my mind."
"Noted," Rodney says drily. "I'll keep it on the list of things to do in my copious free time."
The puddlejumpers move through the room above them, dodging lamps and the weird angled wall and John's curtains. He's pretty over the whole resting all the time thing, but the jumpers help. It's like one of those nights where John doesn't feel like having sex and Rodney comes up with increasingly hilarious excuses to sleep over anyway, so it doesn't feel strange to be lying on John's bed in boxers and t-shirts at 2530, jumpers circling lazily overhead.
After they fall into a downward spiral of echoing yawns, John brings his jumper down and makes a smooth landing on top of the dresser. "Time for bed," he says, and waits for Rodney to ground his jumper before rolling on his side and bringing Rodney with him. Sometimes being the inner spoon will halt Rodney in his somnolent quest for bed and blanket domination, although John's not enthused about leaving his gut vulnerable to elbows.
"I can't believe I'm going to bed before midnight." Rodney stifles another yawn. "You're a terrible influence."
"The worst." John noses his way into the hollow of Rodney's neck.
"You're going to ruin science, " Rodney says, "for Earth. For all time. For the Pegasus Galaxy. For everybody. By cutting into my," yawn, "post-midnight lab productivity."
"Right," John says. He hugs Rodney a little tighter, mostly so his ass doesn't hang off the bed.
Sleep comes easily, especially since Rodney snores less when he's lying on his side. John starts off by dreaming of his miniature jumpers soaring around Atlantis, freed of remotes and big enough that John can imagine himself hiding inside them like a little kid in a blanket fort. He feels safer in his dream than he can remember feeling since his mom was alive, when she'd push a plate of cookies under one of the blanket curtains for him to snack on while he read books with a flashlight. There's no Dave in his dream to pester him, no dinner bell or bedtime to avoid.
Then, somehow, so smoothly that there's no transition to point to, he's in Atlantis, lying in the Chair, suffused with the same feeling of warmth, comfort, security. Atlantis slides into him like he's the Chair, like Atlantis is part of him, and if he opened his eyes he'd find his skin shining, see himself trembling with power and light. He's opening, up, up, up, and the light's coming from inside him now, his eyes are shut but he can feel his chest opening, and he feels everything now, towers extend from him like limbs and systems run through him like veins, he's glowing like a thousand ZPMs, and there's nowhere Atlantis can't fill, nowhere he can't go, nothing he can't do, nothing at all.
"How is that my room is the only one with Ancient TV?" John says, pulling up the menu in his room for Rodney two hours into the second loop of wedding footage.
"Actually, they all have them, but there's nothing broadcasting," Rodney says, squinting at his datapad. "Yours is just the only room on this hall with shows recorded. Huh. Interesting."
Of course, it's not like John got Ancient Ti-Vo with anything cool on it. It's just dozens of Ancient news broadcasts and one really outdated special on spring fashion trends. John watches that twice, but only because he's really desperate and the Ancient TV projects on the wall across from the bed. Maybe Rodney can figure out some way to hook up one of the laptops to it; the anthropologists want a copy of everything.
The news broadcasts don't appear to be in any kind of order, although judging from the fashion special, they're all from around the same time. Winter holiday, Wraith, Wraith, elections, Wraith, Wraith, sports victory, Wraith, Wraith, elections. While it makes sense that the decision to leave Atlantis was difficult and long in the making, John is surprised by the degree of vitriol in the political coverage. It's not so different from politics back home, but it's easy to forget that the Ancients were people and not, well, Vulcans with freaky Vulcan genes.
"Hey," Rodney says. He's sitting the floor again, so John lies down beside him and pillows his head on Rodney's discarded jacket. "If you're trying to distract me, now is not the time."
"'kay," John says.
He wakes up to Rodney poking him the side, looking concerned. "John? You're still here?"
"Have you eaten something?" John asks groggily. His hands are still half-asleep, annoying uncoordinated when he goes to wipe the sleep from his eyes. "What time is it?"
"2400," Rodney says. "And no, actually." He gets up and rummages in one of the desks until he comes up with a Power Bar.
John hates it when Rodney tastes like Power Bar, so he says hastily, "Let's go to the mess."
Rodney hmms for a moment before he drops the offending energy bar back into the drawer. "Fine. But if I pass out from hypoglycemic shock enroute, it's not like you can carry me."
"Rodney," John says, and then, "Can you give me a hand?"
The distance to the mess is negligible when transporters are involved, but John still catches Rodney staring at him a couple of times like he's afraid John is the one who's going to swoon into someone's manly embrace. From past experience, John knows Rodney will cut it out as soon John is up to blowing up and/or shooting things again. It's still annoying.
"So," Rodney says, pausing more for mashed whatever than breath, "I've cross-referenced some of the systems activation in week three of the log with the testing that happened in week one. Did you know there are whole buildings that don't show up on the transporter map? The Ancients—someone with a really high access level—checked to see which transporters were still functioning before they shut the secondary system down, but they never fixed the map. It looks like someone deactivated all of the transporters in those buildings before everybody cleared out ten thousand years ago."
"Was there something wrong with those buildings?" John says. "I mean, we didn't get all of the really damaged sections offline for a while." Atlantis wouldn't take anyone to a transporter that was damaged, destroyed, or in an area without functioning life support, but it was easy to end up somewhere you really didn't want to go. More than one person had opened the doors to find themselves up to their knees in decaying sealife and muck, or in an area with "non-essential" systems (like doors) inoperative. Manual overrides had a steep learning curve.
"Not then," Rodney says. "Now? Who knows."
John swallows a mouthful of the sweet-and-sour hot cereal he's liberally dosed with Tabasco. "Right," he says when the hellfire in his mouth subsides.
Then he nearly jumps when Ronon slaps his tray down on the table.
"There's some really freaky shit in those ocean databases," Ronon says. He does look alarmed, which is… concerning.
"I know." Rodney gestures with his spork. "Close encounters of the whale kind, remember?"
"Flagecallus," Ronon says.
"Whatever." Ronon scowls, stabbing the slab of unpronounceable-thing on his plate. It bleeds.
Rodney narrows his eyes. "Wait, did Ancient Wikipedia give you nightmares?"
"Ancient Wikipedia gave you nightmares," John says. Which is stooping to Rodney's level, but all's fair in… war. "After you stayed up for thirty-six hours reading about Lantean marine life when your whale friend took his pod and went home."
"Yeah." Ronon gets into the spirit of things. "You screamed like a little girl when Zelenka woke you up."
"This is what happens when you fall asleep in the lab," John intones.
"You kicked me out of bed," Rodney says defensively. "For kicking."
"Irony," Ronon says.
Rodney rolls his eyes. "I appreciate the overflowing concern from the creative writing department."
"Did you know that the Ancients documented 147 unexplained noises in the Lantean sea?" Ronon says. "They named some of them. The lamada is a hum just above the lowest frequency detectible by the human ear that occurs a few times every year. If you're on the sea, you can feel it more than you can hear it. It's like a rattle in your bones. The fellen is a boom with no known origin that occurs sporadically on calm nights. It has a loose correlation with fish kills, but the Ancients were unable to establish a link even after a 450 year longitudinal study."
"I don't believe that," Rodney says, toying with his napkin.
"I can tell you more," Ronon says.
The three hours of tossing and turning and startling at every half-heard noise before John falls asleep are very long hours, especially because Rodney's not there to kick him.
Sometimes when he dreams about reading, he's sitting in the Chair, flipping through menus with his mind, but usually it's less predictable. Once, he dreams about sitting in a little Ancient studio apartment that reminds him of the efficiency he lived in when he was stationed at McChord, right down the part where it looks it was furnished by Ancient Ikea. There's a little computer on a chunky desk that boots up lightning fast and flowers in the windowsill. This dream sticks with John, mostly because he was doing his monthly budget in Lotus 1-2-3, in Ancient, and he's never in his life willingly used Lotus.
One time, when he and Rodney were stuck in an oubliette on M90-361, John wrote a program in BASIC on the dirt floor, just to prove that he could. It was simple, just:
10 PRINT "rodney"
20 PRINT "shut up"
30 GOTO 10
John doesn't know why he dreams about the broadcast schedule for Ancient soap operas or learning Ancient assembly code or balancing a checkbook he doesn't even have. He doesn't know why he dreams about pulling up the wall terminal in his room and reading about the latest developments in Ancient laser pens. In his dreams, he has the sense that he could be doing something else, reading something else, that's all within his control, but it feels so natural. Like all that Atlantis has to offer is already there for him, so why shouldn't he be doing this?
If John looks at what he's reading, really looks, he can see everything.
"Thanks," John says, legs dangling off the exam table. He's almost looking forward to the brutal ramp-up in physical therapy starting tomorrow. Anything would be better than another week of trying to aim one endlessly refolded paper airplane toward the trash can for six hours a day.
Carson clucks his tongue. "If I could put you in a full body cast, I'd do it, John. Then you'd be forced to listen to me."
"Sure thing." John lowers himself to the floor. "I'll take that under advisement."
The first thing he does when he gets back to his office (aside from a little triumphant bouncing in what is not a particularly bouncy chair) is radio Ronon on a private channel. "You busy?" he says, still cautious.
"Just beating up some Marines," thud, "nothing urgent."
"Free around 1600? My office."
"Sure," Ronon says, sentence punctuated by another thud. "See you then."
Ronon's prompt: he ducks his head in the doorway at 1568. "Sheppard," he says, and jerks his thumb toward the hallway.
"Roger," John says, and follows.
They're walking down the hall away from where the transporter dropped them off when Ronon speaks again. "Taking you up one of the towers that doesn't have a number. We got as far as the fifth floor last time. Have to hike around a few buildings, but the ground's clear. You up to it?"
"I think so," John says honestly.
"You change your mind, you let me know," Ronon says. "There's no other way back."
John's not sure he's ever been on the ground in the central part of the city. There's a lot of debris down there, and some parts are impassable. With the transporters to get around, sparing the manpower to clear the ground seemed like a waste of time. If they lost power and couldn't Gate out, they'd need jumpers to evacuate the city, so he'd had Rodney set up a dedicated backup generator there instead. When the doors part to let him outside, he's surprised to see… streets. What looks like it might have been a park, maybe. Atlantis has been above sea level for two years and the big storm during the first year washed away a lot of the debris, the stink of rotting flora and fauna has largely subsided. John picks up an earthy aroma like mature compost, but that's it.
They go north past two buildings, spaced as far apart as Manhattan avenues. The third building has an elongated first story, impossibly big windows stretching above John's head. The door Ronon leads him to is glass—no, it can't be glass, to have withstood all the pressure of the sea outside—and John can already see that what lies beyond is… untouched. Not just by the natural phenomena that surrounded it.
The door opens into to a cavernous lobby, clusters of couches and chairs punctuating the open space. Everything is distorted by the colored light that filters through the north wall, panels stained like the window behind the Gate. Green diamonds, red rhomboids, gold circles stretch over the floor, a series of glowing pools. Whatever the floor's made of absorbs even the most minute of vibrations, so John has the eerie sense that he's gliding across. He has to stop and close his eyes for a moment to orient himself.
"Teyla and I felt like that, too." Ronon says, turning back toward him. His voice should echo in a room this size, but it's soft as a whisper. "She thought it might be a place for worship."
Ronon shakes his head. "There's some transporters that only take you up and down. The main ones dump you in here."
John nods. "Okay. Let's do it."
When the—it's not an elevator, but John wants to call it one—opens onto the second floor, John's jaw drops.
"Jesus Christ," John says, staring at what looks disturbingly like Ancient prom wear. "You brought me to the fucking mall."
"I got the Daedalus to bring you Pringles." John leans back against the headboard, eyeing the laptop at the end of the bed. "Don't make me regret abusing my privileges as the military commander of this base."
Scowling all the while, Rodney leans over and feeds him one. "You didn't get me any french onion dip."
"Anyway," John says. "I was thinking more… McFly."
Rodney actually puts down the can so he can bury his face in his hands. "Flux capacitors. I should have known."
"Spoken like a man who took his sister to five Robin Sparkles concerts."
"I bet you loved Valley Girl. I bet you loved Nicholas Cage's hair."
"You realize that you've admitted to seeing Valley Girl," John says, trying to mouse over to the next episode of Firefly with his toe. This is always more complicated than he thinks it will be.
"You saw Moonstruck in theaters."
"There's got to be a theater in the mall. I wonder if it works."
"I can't figure out why the Ancients would hide a mall." Rodney sighs. "There's something here that I'm not getting."
"Everywhere we went, when we got here," John says. "The rooms felt like… guest rooms. Made up for visitors. Even the labs—they were clear, right?"
"It wouldn't be that easy to empty the whole city like that," Rodney says.
"We're not guests now." John gives up on the trackpad at his feet. "Maybe that's why we can see more stuff."
"Yes, Einstein, I figured that part out." Rodney stretches, then crawls over toward the laptop. "Space cowboys?"
"Space cowboys sound good," John says.
Dozing, later, leaning against Rodney's shoulder, John can't get the sensation of that silent passage across the mall lobby out of his mind. Something's just out of his grasp—he can't shake the feeling that this is familiar, that somewhere he's got all the pieces to explain what the Ancients left behind. What they chose to.
Or maybe he's watched Weird Science too many times. Hard to say.
"Sounds good to me." Elizabeth leans forward to gather the papers on her desk. "Any objections?"
"Nope," Ronon flips his notebook closed.
"Operation Beer Festival is go," John says.
After a brief pause, Rodney looks up from his datapad and lets out an exaggerated sigh. "Fine."
"That wraps up everything," Elizabeth says. "You're dismissed. Now go enjoy your Sunday—it starts at sundown. Rodney, I hope I don't have to remind you that your position does not give you the authority to override the civilian head of Atlantis."
"I would just like to remind you that my work can be the difference between who lives and who dies," Rodney says. "In a crisis situation. In the lab. In the restrooms closest to the Gateroom."
Elizabeth shuffles the papers in her hands, sets them back down in a neat stack on the desk. "All the more reason for you to get a full night's sleep at least once every three weeks."
John clears his throat. "Right," he says, like he didn't see a pair of safety shears on top of Rodney's dresser last night, glinting beneath the lamp.
"Dismissed," Elizabeth says again, and John swings his legs down off the table.
His walk over to Rodney's room is as casual as John can make it, which isn't very.
"If you drop this," Rodney said, holding the rope where John could see it, "it'll let you loosen up everything enough to get out of it on your own."
"Got it," John said. He was trying not to struggle against the rope already wrapped around him; it was soft but didn't have much give.
"That said," Rodney leaned in until his lips were almost touching John's ear, "I'll be disappointed if you ruin all my hard work. Can I blindfold you now?"
"Sure." John thought this part was a little silly, given that it was a blindfold only for values of blindfold that included Rodney's fancy sleep mask. The sleep mask did a decent job of blocking the light, though, when Rodney slipped it over John's head. The elastic wasn't too tight, and the polyester interior was cool against his cheeks.
"Sure," John said again.
"Here's the rope," Rodney said, so John obligingly parted his lips. "You're in control now, okay? So if you drop it—you'd better be sure. Tap against the book that's under your right hand once for yes, twice for no."
John tapped once in the affirmative.
"If you need to stop but you don't want to drop the loop, tap twice."
Another solo tap.
"Good," Rodney said, voice rough. "Good. I'll just… finish tying you up, then."
With one sense blocked, the other four grew sharper. The rope in John's mouth went slack when it got wet, but it didn't get too slippery. He could hear Rodney's movements around the bed, the creak of the rope where it strained, the rustle as Rodney wrapped it around it him. The short fibers that stuck out from the loop in John's mouth pricked at his lips: not sharp enough to cut, just firm enough to press into the skin. Everything started to get smaller and smaller, until the purposeful movement of Rodney's fingers over him was almost unbearable. Sometimes Rodney's pants brushed against John's naked thigh and John couldn't suppress a shudder, couldn't do anything but brace his hands against the book and the mattress. The cover of the book—it was pebbled leather, so probably Principia Mathematica—warmed slowly under his sustained touch.
Tonight, Rodney's got him tied facing up, hands linked to the attachment points that normally hide under the sparkly Ancient curtains, so John's holding a koosh ball instead. He likes the texture of the koosh ball and the way it squishes when he tightens his grip. As it turns out, John likes a lot of things he never really thought about before Rodney: the slow build of anticipation, the way Rodney always makes him in charge even though Rodney's the one who does stuff. He always used to feel weird about never really wanting to do anything, letting other people take the initiative, but Rodney makes him feel present, hungry, complicit, desiring and desired.
"Tight enough?" Rodney asks, tugging at the rope around John's ankle.
"Yup," John says, tugging back.
It's a good thing Rodney's so smart.
Rodney sits up in bed and shouts into his headset, "What do you mean, blew up?"
"—Carson," Elizabeth says. "He's dead."
Chapter 4: tell the world
The big bonfire is about two clicks from the Gate. It's piled high with all the brush the Athosians cleared for their new camp, burning brightly. John saw the smoke rising above the trees as soon as he stepped through, but he couldn't see the source until he got closer. The moon was bright enough overhead that he had no trouble following the winding path towards the fire, Rodney close behind him.
Ronon, SGA-2, and the anthropologists came over this morning—on New Athos, this afternoon—and Teyla's been here since last week. Predictably, John and Rodney got held up at the office when something definitely Ancient, probably sentient, and possibly a can-opener only responsive to John's ATA gene tried to eat Elizabeth's laptop.
Rodney's only been to New Athos once before, so he spends the walk to the bonfire holding John's free hand and trying not to trip on encroaching tree roots. John doesn't drop Rodney's hand when the flames come into view, just shifts his grip on the rough bark in his other hand. He can feel the heat from the fire already, warming his cheeks and seeping beneath his tac vest. It'll be uncomfortable in while, but it's welcome just now after the walk through the cool forest.
Jinto is the first to break from the crowd milling around the bonfire and approach them. "Hello!" he says, rushing forward and waving, a little awkward like any kid in the midst of a growth spurt. On Earth he'd be a child, but on Athos he's nearly an adult, already being trained for diplomacy like his father before him. It's easy to forget that in the face of Jinto's enthusiasm, the way he bounces on his heels eagerly when he comes to a stop before them.
"Hey," John says, wagging the branch in his hand. "Where do we drop these? By the fire, in the fire…?"
"With Teyla." Jinto gestures vaguely behind him. "Did you have a good trip? Dr. McKay, were you among those attacked by an Ancient weapon this morning? Lieutenant Cadman said it was fearful indeed, and a great threat to your people."
Behind John, Rodney groans.
"I'm sure Rodney can tell you all about it later," John says. "It was definitely something."
They find Teyla sitting on a large rock on the other side of the bonfire, close enough that the heat must be overwhelming. The neckline of her top is dark with sweat. "John," she says as they approach, waving but not rising to meet them. "Rodney. It grows late, but I did not wish to start without you."
"Well, I wasn't the one who—" Rodney stops, passes her his stick, sighs. "Let's get this over with."
Teyla reaches to take John's stick from him. She feeds both sticks slowly into the flames, waiting for the ends to catch before she throws them into the heart of the fire. "There," she says. "It is done."
(Before she left for Atlantis, Teyla explained about the stick thing. "It is traditional," she said, "For visitors to bring something from their homes to add to our fire. The bonfire becomes a shared hearth to warm us all for the next two days."
"Like Sheppard's golf magazines?" said Ronon.
"I think Teyla meant kindling," John said. "Aren't you supposed to have more respect for periodicals?")
In the present, Rodney clears his throat. "So, is this when we… you know?" Rodney's back is to the fire, so John can't see the expression on his face. "For… yeah."
"No, Rodney," Teyla says patiently. "The moon is not high enough. Also, we are not yet drunk."
John doesn't drink often these days, and he almost never gets drunk—the hangovers in college (hell, high school) were enough to last him a lifetime. Correspondingly, he's a total lightweight, which is why he's lying on the ground next to Rodney, head pillowed on Rodney's thigh, while Teyla leads Carson's remembrance.
Everything feels warm and pleasantly spinny; John wouldn't want to try to get up and walk right now, but he doesn't have to. He doesn't have to do anything, just sit here and hold down Rodney's jittery leg and let Rodney pet his hair. Rodney shares a lab with Zelenka, so he can drink anyone else on Atlantis under the table. Right now, John feels a little bad for him.
"He was a good guy," Rodney says, voice shaking a little, not steady like it had been when he'd spoken about Drenna or Lidit. "Kind of a quack, but—a good guy. I'm sorry I never went fishing with him. I think he wanted to be friends with me but I'm not very good at—I'm sorry he's dead. I keep thinking it's my fault. It's not fair."
He's quiet for a minute, which is about how long it takes John to remember that he's supposed to say something, too. "He was patient. Scared of a lot of things, but brave." John says. "He was good at sharing."
Ronon speaks next, and John tries to focus, but the words slip right past him. The fire is hot on his legs, but a cool breeze blows past his bare arms and he shivers. Rodney digs behind them, finds John's discarded jacket, and drapes it over him. It's almost too much after a few minutes, but John keeps it on. He squeezes Rodney's ankle with the hand that's nearest, because that's the closest part of Rodney, too. And ankles are very important, after all. They support you.
"He should drink some water," Rodney says, somewhere above him. "Do you—?"
Something wet hits his cheek, and John turns his face, tucks it into the curve of Rodney's belly.
"Oh, for the love of— Jinto has a higher tolerance than you."
John lets Ronon manhandle him into sitting up and back against the log Ronon and Rodney have been leaning against. He takes the canteen Rodney holds out to him and drinks deeply, because SERE training instilled instincts than not even Athosian ale can purge. "'m fine," he says around a mouthful. "Promise."
"I am sure you are," Teyla says, crouching in front of him. Where did she come from? "It is time for rest."
What follows is kind of a blur. John remembers it like stills from a movie: arm thrown over Ronon's shoulder, Teyla holding back the curtain of the tent, Rodney shaking him once and saying, "Did you know you snore when you're drunk? Because that is information I would like to have had, thank you very much." He wakes one time to find that his cheeks are wet, but he doesn't remember why, so he goes back to sleep.
He doesn't dream.
And the hangover is terrible.
There are three terrifying days where SGA-2 goes to investigate the lack of contact from the Taranans and disappears, a squad of Marines right behind them disappears, and Elizabeth sends Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla after them. The wound in John's gut has healed, but he's got another few weeks of PT and desk duty ahead before anyone will clear him for the field, now that Carson's—so John can't do anything beyond slouching in the chair someone finds for him in the Gateroom for all five hours of radio silence following SGA-1's departure. It would easy to override Elizabeth; the likelihood that anyone on Atlantis would stop John from taking a few more Marines and heading after everyone himself is slim. John stays put, though: it's not like the US military hasn't spent the last two decades drilling hurry up and wait into John's skull.
All the sudden they're bursting through the Gate— Cadman leaning on Lorne for support, with Simpson, Dr. Patek, and John's team following on their heels. No sign of the Marines. John gets to his feet, clenches his hands, waits a few seconds before he takes a deep breath and goes down to meet them.
"It was Michael," Teyla says when he and Elizabeth converge on her, the eye of the storm. "The Taranans are dead; he has been using them to conduct… research."
"Some kind of Super Wraith," Rodney says, touching John's arm, just a quick brush of his fingers. "We destroyed Michael's lab here, but there might be others."
"Great," Elizabeth says. She sighs. "Just great."
Dr. Keller won't take John off light duty, but she turns out to be a pushover when he insists on staying with his team for their post-mission checkup. Teyla has a long bruise on the side of one arm, Ronon's got a few scraped knuckles, and Rodney managed to skin both knees, but that's all. John manages to get everyone out before Dr. Keller can start being sensitive and asking pointed, supportive questions about him and Rodney like she tries to do every time he sees her. Liberated from the infirmary, they go to Teyla's room, where she tugs some of the pillows off the bed so that John and Rodney can lie down while she and Ronon sit on the floor and play cards.
John mostly stares at the back of Rodney's neck, pale beneath the shaggy overhang of hair that really needs a trim. He's not good at talking about things, but that's okay when he's around his team. Rodney says everything, Ronon is a blaster-first-talk-about-my-novel-later kind of guy, and Teyla can speak for hours if she wants without giving away anything at all. Like the men and women he served with in the Air Force, what his team cares about is that he'll show up, that he'll take point or their six, that if they get captured or trapped or stranded he'll move hell and—not earth—to get them back. Unlike everyone on Earth, though, John knows that they'd do the same.
"You're tickling my neck," Rodney mumbles. "Back off or commit, but stop it with the heavy breathing back there, okay?"
"Got it," John says, nudging his nose between Rodney's neck and Teyla's pillow.
Crammed into the village's guest hut that night, John finds himself with Rodney plastered to his back and Teyla's elbow uncomfortably close to his gut. Ronon's sleeping next to Teyla because she's the only one of them who can kick back without waking up. Everyone's coated in a light layer of dried sweat after the long walk from the gate and Rodney's going to start drooling on John any minute now. Yeah, it definitely feels like a vacation.
"Hey," Ronon's voice, pitched low, rumbles across the tent. "I found some stuff, yesterday. Looks like it should be in the medical database, but it's in a separate folder in systems. Carson's—can't take it to him."
Neither Rodney or Teyla have stirred, so John says, "Tell me."
"There's a folder that's not on the list everybody gave me. Hidden directory." After a month or two of beta-testing Less Shitty Babelfish, Ronon picked up basic Ancient with ease; written, it's phonetically close to Satedan, just with a different alphabet.
John opens his eyes, but he can't see Ronon in the thin lines of moonlight that slip between the jamb and the door. "What's in it?"
"Experimental data," Ronon says. "It was opened recently. Don't know most of the words. Yet. But looks like it might be Michael was working from."
"Huh." John looks toward the light. "That's… interesting."
"So—" A loud snore cuts Ronon off. "—want me to do?"
"Keep it to yourself," John says. "Let Rodney look at it when we get back."
There's a shuffling sound from Ronon's corner of the tent, and not too long after, snores that rival Rodney's. John wishes he could sleep so easily.
Rodney makes a smacking noise. "Hmm?" he says, exhaling onto the wet patch.
"That's gross." John rolls over and rubs his shoulder against the bedroll. It doesn't help. "Where's everybody?"
"Teyla's drinking tea with the village elders. I think Ronon had to pee."
John has had enough of everyone else's bodily effluvia for the moment. "Ronon found something in one of the databases. What Michael was working from. I told him to show it to you when we get back."
"Not Biro?" Rodney sits up and stretches, yawns. "She's the only geneticist we have on staff now. Keller is the SGC's equivalent of a GP, but I think they pulled her out of a MD/PhD program at Berkeley where she was focusing on bioethics."
"Where did Carson's research come from?" John says. "It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that genetic modification is how we got the Wraith in the first place, and maybe, just maybe, we have better uses of our time than continuing to fuck things up."
"Are you still pissed because you got turned into a bug?"
John sighs. "I'm—yes, I'm still pissed because I got turned into a bug."
"So, you don't want to tell Elizabeth," Rodney says. "You think—"
"You're the head of science," John says pointedly. "Who else am I supposed to go to?"
If he looks straight up, John can see the roof of the hut, thatching over a spiral of curved reed supported by a dozen long spokes of wood. He's stayed in a lot of huts in Pegasus and seen a lot of roofs. The construction is different in all of them, whether it's design, materials used, or dimension. It's not that John doesn't see the point in what the Ancients tried to do, it's just that he sees a distinction between change and making things better. There's a reason for all those checks and balances in the US Constitution. Having the power to do something doesn't mean it's right.
"You don't have to—look, it's—don't get involved, it'll compromise you," John says. "I just—"
"Hey." Rodney's tone is firm. "I think I get to decide whether I throw in with Team Syndicate or Team Lone Gunmen here. You don't get to do that for me."
"I think that technically, we qualify as the shadow government conspiracy—"
"Shut up," Rodney says, bringing his face down to John's; kisses him. "I'm serious."
"Okay." John brushes his rough cheek against Rodney's. He forgives Rodney for his weird sleep licking and his drool and his debilitating crush on Scully. Rodney pins John's wrists against the bedroll and grinds down on him, and John's pretty sure they're supposed to be heading back to the Gate soon, but he also has no objection to getting dirtier when he's already in desperate need of a shower, so.
Thankfully, Ronon comes back and tells them not to piss near the goats before things get out of hand.
"That is enough for today," she says, gathering her bantos in one hand so she can reach down to help John up with the other.
"Yeah," John says sheepishly when he's back on his feet. "I guess so."
Teyla touches his arm. "It will take time to regain your full strength, John."
John drops down to gather his discarded bantos. He's gotten good at this—letting his knees do the bending instead of his back, crouching down instead of bending over. "Sure," he says, rolling one of the rods toward him. "Is it going to be fast enough, though?"
"It will have to be," Teyla says. "I am expecting a child."
After John falls over, he feels bad about letting a pregnant woman help him up, twice. Then he remembers that this is Teyla, and she will probably kick his ass even more if he apologizes. "Congratulations?" he manages.
"Thank you," she says patiently.
"Have you told anyone else?"
Teyla does that thing that on anyone else would be a full-out eyeroll. "Kanaan, my—the father," she says. "I thought you should know as soon as I was sure."
"Wow," John says. "I mean, Teyla, this is—wow." Even though Teyla gave him some warning, he still can't quite imagine it. Not that she won't be an amazing parent: Teyla is amazing at almost everything that doesn't involve preparing edible food. It's just that Teyla with another tiny Teyla is hard for him to wrap his head around.
"I will tell Rodney and Ronon next." She leans their bantos rods against the wall by the door. "But I imagine they might feel… protective. Perhaps you could…"
"Right," John says, putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. "I can do that."
"They have midwives or something." John takes one of Rodney's pawns with his castle. "And you're the one who's always complaining that Western medicine is witchcraft."
"There is a qualitative difference between peer-reviewed quackery and a D&D manual. And a quantitative difference. That's all I'm saying." Rodney moves his bishop two squares from one of John's knights. Hmm.
"How do you know so much about this, anyway?" John toys with one of his last remaining pawns. They're in Rodney's quarters, sitting on the bed, so he's not worried about anyone overhearing them. He understands why Teyla doesn't want most people to know—Rodney's freakout is pretty mild by Earth standards. Elizabeth would ground her.
Rodney sighs. "Jeannie. Don't ask." He taps his fingers on the edge of the board; the pieces rattle.
John wins this round by a hair, despite Rodney getting one of his pawns to the eighth square and taking out John's queen in three moves. Defeat conceded, Rodney flops back against the headboard. He scatters the chess pieces everywhere: on the bed, the floor, in John's lap.
"Hey," John says, but there's no real heat in it. He flips the chessboard over—it's his new portable set, one he brought back from Earth—and starts putting the pieces into their little slots. When they're all in the right place, the board closes up like a book. He puts it on Rodney's nightstand and scoots Rodney over so he can sit beside him.
"Sorry," Rodney says. "This whole day has been weird. Teyla's knocked up, I can't figure out what the hell this directory Ronon found is, oh, also, most of the Ancient population on Atlantis never made it to Earth, so where the hell did they go?"
"What?" John says, turning to look Rodney in the face.
"So this directory Ronon found is locked to people who have root access on the Atlantis mainframe. That's me, Zelenka, and Ronon, and you, too, I guess, through the Chair. Anyway, it's got stuff that shouldn't be all in the same place—ship manifests, notes I've never seen before, demographic information, ZPM usage logs, a bunch of other stuff."
When Rodney pauses, John gestures for him to continue. "Yes?" he says pointedly.
"Well, when they left, when they sunk Atlantis—the Ancients were totally fucked. Half their warships had been destroyed, a big chunk of their military was dead or MIA, the Wraith were winning, well, we knew that. Their ZPM manufacturing facilities had been destroyed or were inaccessible. They left one of their last remaining ZPMs on Atlantis—the one that was maintaining the shields—to dial the Gate to Earth. But they barely used any of the power." Rodney pauses for breath. "There's no way they could have gotten a population of almost two million off Atlantis, even taking the ships we haven't found into account. Maybe a third of that. At best."
"Maybe they Ascended." John's trying to make some sense of what Rodney said, but it doesn't quite compute.
"A million people?" Rodney snorts. "Please."
"You're right," John says, mock-serious. "A million Rodney McKays Ascending en masse? Can't see that happening."
"I thought we agreed not to talk about that," Rodney says after he socks John in the arm.
"Right," John says. "A million Daniel Jacksons, then."
"Did you spend all six weeks on Earth chained to the water cooler?"
"I went on a mission with SG-1 once." John turns on his side, throws an arm over Rodney's ribs. "O'Neill had a sprained ankle."
"My water cooler was Gou'ald," Rodney says wistfully. "I think it was originally some kind of core temperature regulation system from one of their ships, but Zelenka couldn't handle the 40 hour work weeks and he put a tank in one night. It had hot and cold taps until Kavanagh broke the hot water."
"I don't believe you."
"You'll never know." When John starts unbuckling Rodney's belt, Rodney adds, "Okay, okay, but I'm not joking! It was really—it was a great water cooler, okay. The best."
What're you reading?" John asks after a few minutes.
Elizabeth's head jerks up. "Oh! I'm sorry, John. I asked Ronon to keep an eye out for Ancient literature—the search engine still hasn't finished indexing—and he sent me some early Ancient poetry last night. It's incredibly fascinating."
John raises an eyebrow. "Looks like it."
"Structurally, the poems are similar to Horace's Odes, but the divine is never personified," she says. "Just immanent in the natural world."
"So, more…" John waves his hand in the air vaguely. "Teyla?"
"Reminds me a lot of Eastern philosophy, actually." Elizabeth puts down the datapad. "Did you want to talk to me about something?"
"Nothing in particular." He pauses. "This is what you want to do, isn't it? Study the Ancients."
"Yes." Elizabeth sets her datapad down. "They left so many resources for us, John. Imagine how we could apply some of their technology on Earth, how we could help the rest of this galaxy by getting them up to speed."
"You think things will ever quiet down that much?" he asks.
"They'll have to," she says firmly. "We have to protect Earth. That's why we're both here."
"Right," John says. "Right."
He doesn't say that if they really wanted to protect Earth, they'd blow up the Stargate, they'd blow up Atlantis, and they'd go down with the city, captains on a helpless and doomed ship. That's not what this is about anymore.
The Chair's still as impressive as the first time he saw it, when it looked more like the set of a sci-fi movie than the real deal, or even an actual sci-fi movie. It's a theatrical piece of… not-furniture. He's sure the Ancients could have built something equally functional that was more La-Z-Boy than garishly painted lead figurine, but the Ancients could have done a lot of basic, sane things that they didn't, and the Chair is not at the top of John's list.
When John leans back into the Chair, there's a sense, the sense of a sigh, and then he doesn't even have to think, everything he wants flows into him, seamless, no response time at all. He closes his eyes and he sees Ancients drafting plans for the Chair—wow, does it really do—but that's not what—and there, yes, flash of polls, election results, debate, empty streets filled with people and empty again, and the city feels alive, and he knows, at last, and—he knows.
Because she tells him.
Atlantis is no wife. It was built by men and women piece by piece, men and women it remembers only as impressions on its girders and reflections in its glass. It is the first, the last, and the greatest of its (call them sister) fellow city ships. Once its towers teemed with people and once its balconies were heavy with the flowering vine that still blooms in stasis in Horallus Tower. War ships and trade ships and passenger ships docked at its piers. Its creators endowed Atlantis with intelligence to serve their own purposes, and wisely enough that it did so gladly and well. Their error was small but central—in giving Atlantis the capacity to care for its people, they taught it, too, the pain of injustice and loss. Atlantis does not have full autonomy, but it has loyalty and a memory that stretches long, spans galaxies and generations. Unlocked, it granted power to whom it chose.
There are a few with the gene who have come from Earth, but John is the last whose ancestors built Atlantis.
"Stuff they wouldn't want anybody who stumbled on the city to find," Ronon says. "The genetic experiments that didn't go so well."
"That time when they killed the majority of the city population before they sank the city," Rodney says, scrolling through the files on the external terminal. "And blamed it on the Wraith, because, of course, killing people for the sake of not eating them is totally insane Wraith logic."
John's team is gathered in the room Ronon claimed for the library, which has a surprising number of paper books from Earth and Pegasus alike. There's one Ancient external terminal and three laptops scattered around the room, as well as a large desk next to the reference shelves that has two neat stacks of academic journals, another laptop, and a pencil sharpener on display. Ronon's leaning back against it, and it's weird—now John can totally see Ronon with pince-nez.
Teyla has commandeered the most comfortable looking of the Ancient chairs, the one with the most Athosian throw pillows. Her feet are tucked up under her and she's hugging the largest pillow to her chest. Another weird thing—to see Teyla so casual and unguarded, concern shown openly on her face, writ large on her body. "It is difficult to believe of the Ancestors," she says. "But I have seen lesser differences divide a tribe or family."
"They were just people," Rodney says. "Really smart, genetically advanced people who used themselves as lab rats and occasionally turned into pure energy—but not any smarter than me."
"Right." John is sitting on top of the desk with the external terminal, legs dangling down next to Rodney. He can't see what's on the terminal, it's all light on Rodney's face.
"How did the Ancients kill so many people so quickly?" Teyla says. "This is a large city."
"Easy," Rodney says. "Bioengineered virus. Epidemic. That's what Carson vaccinated us for right after we came back, the 'Wraith plague.' Except the vaccines existed before anyone started getting sick. Whatever Michael's working on, it's nothing to do with this."
"They didn't think it would be as lethal as it was," John says. "The people who developed it just wanted to, you know, give folks a little push in the direction of Earth. The buildings that got taken off the transporter map were quarantined."
"Earth." Ronon snorts.
"Right," John says, swinging his legs. "Earth."
The current expedition aren't the first to think of Earth as sacred, of its people as unusually worthy of preservation. Earth is refuge, Earth is sanctuary, next only to Ascension. The Ancients aren't the only ones willing to sacrifice their humanity for some idealized version of humankind.
"Atlantis told you all this," Teyla says. "Who will Atlantis talk to if you are absent?"
"There's no one now," Rodney says. "Not Elizabeth. She doesn't have the gene. It didn't take."
"You have the gene now, Teyla," John says. "My gene. The—your kid will have the gene, too. If the expedition left Pegasus, or something happened—you'd still have Atlantis."
"Yes," Teyla says. She looks up, eyes bright. "The city of the Ancestors belongs to Pegasus."
"We know," Rodney says. "Christ. I—"
"I'm the one who woke up the fucking Wraith," John says. "It might have been better if we'd never come here," he says, against his will. He's not sad they came. He'll never leave, he won't, and no one in any galaxy can make him.
"You rose Atlantis," Ronon says. "Got me free."
"It is not as simple as you say, John," Teyla says. "You and the expedition are here now."
John looks to Rodney, who's still looking at the external terminal, brow creased. "Let's sleep on it," John says.
"In the morning," Teyla says, Ronon echoing her.
"In the morning," Rodney says.
"Hey." John crouches down so his face is just below Rodney's. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, just having a tiny freakout regarding my entirely justified paranoia and this galaxy." Rodney scrubs at his face. "Also, did you not realize that we are now Team Mutiny? Do you really think this is a problem you're never going to deal with because oh, you'll be dead, and by the way, I might find that to be one of several gaping flaws in the middle of your complete lack of a plan?"
"I'll come up with something on the fly," John says, covering Rodney's knee with his palm. "I always do."
"Yeah, like that time you flew a nuclear bomb into a hive ship," Rodney says. "Somehow, this is not reassuring coming from you."
"I survived," John says. "We all did."
"It's not always that simple." Rodney leans down and presses his forehead against John's.
John stays there for a while, and he doesn't feel embarrassed about sharing the Athosian version of a hug with Rodney in Rodney's bathroom at all. When he stands up, he offers a hand to Rodney. "Shower?"
"Shower," Rodney says.
"And stuff?" John says: he's never going to be smooth.
"And stuff," Rodney agrees, already sidling toward him.
It's easy to fall asleep.