"It’s too late," Carson said. He could hear the thick exhaustion in his own voice and something that nudged a little too close to grief. "I can’t…it didn’t work." John was already strapped down in isolation. "There’s nothing I can do for him. I’m sorry."
Rodney just stared at him. His face was utterly, terrifyingly blank. Carson had seen people look like that when he told them their children were dead. "What do you mean?" Rodney asked, as if Rodney, of all people, self-proclaimed smartest one of them all, couldn’t possibly know.
"It means he’s gone, Rodney," Elizabeth said gently. She reached out to touch Rodney’s shoulder, and her hand shook. "It means John Sheppard is gone."
"I’m sorry," Carson said. Useless words, no matter how much he meant them.
Perna, then Ellia, now John. His mistakes, his fault, all of them.
Rodney blinked, like he somehow hadn’t expected that answer. His expression didn't change, but his eyes went wet and bright, and he swallowed before he spoke again.
"You said--you said you could fix him," Rodney said. Then, loud with anger and betrayal, "you said you could fix him!"
"Rodney," Elizabeth warned, "he did everything he could." It sounded like rote, as if Elizabeth was already too caught in her own grief to truly mean it. Carson couldn't blame her.
"It wasn’t good enough, was it?" Rodney snapped. He blinked again, then swiped angrily at one eye. "It’s never good enough. All the fucking things you’ve done." He abruptly turned and stalked towards the back of the infirmary, where the isolation rooms were. "I’m going to see him," he tossed over his shoulder, as if daring Carson to think about stopping him. As if Carson would even try.
"Carson," Elizabeth said, and he could almost see her struggling to find something diplomatic and placating, still trying to be the good leader. "Rodney, he--"
"It’s all right," Carson said softly. His guilt was so strong it felt like it was in every cell, like he was made of it. "I understand."
"We can’t keep him there." Rodney was pacing her office; he’d been down in the infirmary for two hours. He spoke fast, his hands darting with urgency, like this was a plan to stave off some new disaster. "He’s strapped to a bed, Elizabeth!" he exclaimed, as if Carson had done it just to be cruel. Then he stopped abruptly, like something had just occurred to him. "And--and we have to feed him! What’s he going to eat?"
"Rodney…" Elizabeth was standing as well. This was too important and terrible to discuss sitting down. She closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead. She wasn't even sure how she was planning on finishing that sentence.
What’s he going to eat? Like she hadn’t spent the last two hours thinking of that.
"We have to build him a habitat!" Rodney said, and he sounded almost happy about it--a tangential solution to a problem he couldn't solve. "Look." He pulled the tablet on her desk closer to him and turned it around. He bent over it, picking up her stylus. "I’ve sketched some plans--"
"Rodney," Elizabeth said. She put her hand on his arm, and something about her voice made him look up at her with widened eyes. "Rodney," she repeated. She took a breath. "I don’t think it’s appropriate to consider building him some kind of cage."
Rodney looked confused, then angry. "It’s not a cage," he said, like she’d insulted him. "It’s a habitat. There’ll be a pond--fresh water, of course--and trees, and--"
"John had very specific wishes about what should happen to him if he couldn’t be cured, Rodney," Elizabeth said.
Rodney blinked, and then his face closed into icy fury. "No," he said. "No. No, we are not going to…to put him down like he's some kind of rabid dog! How can you--"
"So we're going to keep him like a pet?" Elizabeth shot back, silencing him. "Do you really think he'd want that?" She gestured at Rodney's tablet so harshly that she hit it and nearly sent it sliding off the table. "We owe him more than a terrarium, Rodney!"
"We owe him more than a bullet between the eyes, Elizabeth!" Rodney shouted. "We owe him everything! How can you just stand there and tell me the only solution here is for him to die?"
"There is no solution here!" Elizabeth was shouting too, now, but she was far angrier at the situation. Rodney was just a convenient excuse. "There is no solution! John is dead! To all intents and purposes, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard is gone! That…" She swallowed, and damn her, she was fighting back tears. "That thing in there isn't John. It isn't even human anymore, and we both know it." She took a breath, forcing herself to be calm. "John wanted us to…to not take any heroic measures, if it came to this." She swallowed again, but made sure her expression was steel. "This is the kindest thing we can do for him."
Rodney stared at her for a moment, his jaw working like he was fighting with himself about what to say. "Fine, then," he spit at last. "Fine. Go ahead and kill him. Kill whatever bit of John might be left. Who are you going to order to do it?"
She could practically feel the blood draining from her face. "I haven't considered that yet," she said, and was privately amazed her voice was so steady. She hadn't thought about it at all, she realized. "I was…I was assuming the infirmary--"
Rodney snorted. He was back in familiar territory now with his anger, and he knew he had the upper hand. Elizabeth tried not to resent him for it. "Which one of them are you going to force to break the Hippocratic Oath, Elizabeth? Carson? Marie? Keller?" he went on as if he was really considering this. "She's pretty new, maybe she doesn't know John well enough to mind deliberately poisoning him…" He snapped his fingers, all innocence. "Or, I know! We could just starve John to death! That way we won't even have to watch--"
"STOP!" Elizabeth's voice was so loud that she startled herself; Rodney shut up like she'd slapped him. "Don't you dare imply this is easy for me," she said. "I look at that creature in isolation and I see the exact same man you do. But it's not that man anymore, and we have no right to prolong that existence directly against John's wishes."
"John's not here anymore, Elizabeth," Rodney said. "His wishes are no longer relevant." He blinked at his own words and his eyes went liquid again, as if he'd only just understood what that meant. "We're the ones he left behind. And...and I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to go down there and kill a living creature just for the sake of...a dead man's request. Even if it's just an animal now, don't we owe it better than that?"
Elizabeth sighed. She put her palms on her desk and looked down at the space between her hands. She hated how relieved she was, how eager to go back on her word if it meant no blood on her hands. "All right," she said finally, looking up. "All right. We'll do it your way. Show me your plans."
It showed just how upset Rodney was that he didn't even look smug. But when he started flipping through the screen pages of note after note, explaining them all in minute detail, he was so adept and eager that for a moment Elizabeth could pretend that nothing had changed.
She hated how happy that made her, too.
It should have taken more than a month's work to build the habitat, but Rodney got so many volunteers that it was finished in ten days. They adapted one of the largest of the city's abandoned labs, one that was airy and open with lots of light. Rodney made sure they added a pond, and rocks and living trees to climb on and soft sand and a dark and humid cave. The biologists gathered native plant species from the Iratus bugs' planet by the dozen.
They also added bars along one end, made of extremely strong metal. And a force shield, just in case John was strong enough to bend them. Rodney argued that the shield was ridiculous paranoia, but this was one place where Elizabeth wouldn't back down. She insisted that they might need it. This wasn't really John, she told him; they couldn't predict how this new life form would react.
As if Rodney needed reminding.
John had been kept in one of the Wraith cells while the habitat was being built, with the force shield on. Rodney hated it but he reluctantly agreed that there was nowhere else to put him. He visited John whenever he could, but unless he was eating, John just stayed huddled and miserable in the middle of the cell and wouldn't even look at him. Rodney was sure it was because John didn't understand why Rodney wouldn't get him out; not because, like Carson insisted, that John couldn't register his presence through the shield. After all, John still had his eyes. Even if they were crayon yellow and split in the middle like a Wraith's.
The day the habitat was finally finished, Ronon stunned John and they moved him from the cell to the habitat as quickly as possible. Even then, John woke up just as the Marines were hurriedly locking the door behind them.
John snapped alert, sniffing noisily with his mouth open while his head darted right and left like a bird. He inspected the trees, still sniffing, climbed on the rocks then gave them an experimental taste. He did the same thing with the sand, then shook his head and spit like an affronted cat. One of the Marines who had moved John sniggered at that. Rodney glared so hard at the man that he left the room.
John kept tasting and sniffing, oblivious, and pretty soon his skin darkened from pale blue-grey to a deep navy blue.
"He must be getting warm," Carson said. He looked worriedly at Rodney. "You're quite sure the temperature's within the parameters I specified?"
Rodney rolled his eyes, which he never took off John. "Yes, Carson. I did manage to remember to make sure the temperature stays within three degrees of twenty Celsius at all times. It's like Goldilocks' wet dream in there. If Goldilocks was...well..." He was going to say, if Goldilocks were like John, but that wasn't really John, and the joke stopped being funny.
John wasn't there anymore. Rodney knew that, even though he was still using his name. Everyone was. They couldn't manage not to.
Carson looked away. He'd been doing that a lot, lately. Rodney wished he felt worse about it.
In the habitat, John apparently finished his inspection of the area nearest the door and crawled off, still sniffing like mad and occasionally tasting things. 'Crawl' wasn't really the right word for it, because John had never stopped being bipedal, though he readily dropped into a kind of commando-crawl to get closer to the more interesting-smelling things before straightening again. He was completely naked now so everyone got what would be a nicely humiliating view of his dick and ass if John gave a shit about things like that anymore. But after the sniggering Marine left, no one else even breathed in a way that could be attributed to amusement. Rodney sure as hell didn't feel like laughing.
Rodney did smile, although there wasn't really any joy in it. It was just that regardless of Carson's squawking about temperature, Rodney was privately certain that John's darker hue was because he was happy. At least as happy as the genetic mess he'd become could ever get.
Actually, that was pretty much exactly how Rodney felt, too: as happy as he could get anymore, considering how much of a mess he was inside.
He'd take it, he thought. It was better than nothing.
"It's not that I have to be in my lab all the time, you realize, much as I'm sure the incompetent clowns who laughingly call themselves 'scientists' wish that I were constantly available to save them from themselves. Not that they'd ever dare admit it," Rodney said, then finished chewing and swallowed the large forkful of pancakes with a loud gulp. "These are delicious, by the way. The cook--what's her name? Gesundheit? Gonzales? Goodwin?" He realized he was waiting for John to supply the surname and hastily took another big bite. "Well, I'm sure you'd know her, anyway. She's really outdone herself. I just hope she didn't add orange zest or something, to get them tasting like this. It'd be a terrible blow to science to find me dead next to you with my throat like an inner tube and my grey, swollen tongue sticking out." Rodney grimaced. "Now that's a great image." He looked at his food, a little concerned he might be right, then shrugged and cut himself another piece. "I'm sure I would've died by now."
John was stretched out on his stomach over the largest rock at the front of his habitat, so near to the bars that he could have touched them if the force shield were off. He was directly under the giant sunlamp, and Rodney felt warm and sleepy just looking at him. The only part of John that had moved in the last ten minutes was his eyes, which flicked unerringly from Rodney's plate to his mouth, following his hands. It was a little unnerving, if Rodney were being honest. He kept checking for syrup on his chin.
And while he was being honest, Rodney could admit he wasn't sure why he'd decided to eat breakfast down here this morning, instead of in the mess with Teyla and Ronon, or in his lab where all the idiots were at least within shouting distance. It wasn't like he hadn't visited John once a day since he was moved here. It was just that...
It was just that Rodney didn't know what it was. Except, okay, maybe he did.
"Right. The lab. Well, like I said, it's not that I have to be there. So I decided that for once I'd forgo the latest addition to the doubtless gaping ulcer in my stomach and eat breakfast here." He shrugged, feeling ridiculous that he couldn't meet John's eyes when he knew that John couldn't understand anything he said. "I just...got used to it, seeing your ridiculous floppy hair across the table every morning. And hearing your awful donkey laugh when you found something unaccountably hilarious. Not that you laugh anymore. Still have the hair, though. Which is weird, considering you're scaly everywhere else."
Rodney took a very large gulp of his coffee. John watched him drink it.
John didn't do much of anything anymore, as far as anyone could tell. The surveillance videos, when anyone bothered to watch them, pretty much only ever showed him lying on the rocks or hiding in his cave. He swam sometimes: a strange hybrid of a proper crawl stroke and something a beetle might use to keep from drowning. But John never made any noise, and he never laughed or smiled. Not that Rodney was still hoping he might, in some stupid, wistful part of him. Really. Just like he knew it meant nothing that John had ambled over from wherever he'd been when Rodney sat down. He'd probably just wanted the sunlamp.
John was very catlike in that regard, wanting all the warm spots. Rodney could appreciate that.
Rodney sighed. "Lying down on a warm rock's really appealing right now, let me tell you. Caldwell's got a real bug up--I mean bee in his ear, sorry--about changing the Gate team protocols, so no one stays with the same people for more than a few months. He doesn't want to create a situation where anyone might choose their team over the city in a crisis, or even choose one team member over another." Rodney snorted. "As if any of us would be that unprofessional." He took another gulp of coffee. "Caldwell's not so bad, I suppose," he said, looking down at the plate in his lap. "I mean, he can't tell his ass from a hole in the ground, but you have to expect that from the majority of military personnel. Present company excluded, naturally." Rodney filled in John's drawled repeat of 'naturally' in his head. The real, dark blue John didn't move.
Rodney sighed, then took another drink of coffee. It was getting low.
"I mean, much as I hate to say it, he's had a lot of good ideas since he took over. Don't get me wrong, they're not better than what you would've come up with," he added to make sure he didn't hurt John's feelings. "It's just that I was expecting him to be a walking disaster with a ramrod up his ass. So it's been a pleasant surprise to find out he's just got a ramrod up his ass, but without the disaster part."
Rodney smirked a little, then took the last bite of his pancakes and finished his coffee. John watched his hands, then his mouth.
"So, uh, Ronon told me he caught a New Athos deer-type animal for you. They'll bring it down later once Gupta's made sure it doesn't have space-distemper or anything. Bet you'll enjoy eating it." They'd discovered very quickly that John ate like a Wraith, except that he used both hands. They'd also found out that he could survive quite readily on live animals. That had been a tremendous relief, because capturing Wraith was difficult.
John only needed nourishment about once a week, maybe once every two weeks if the animal was big enough. Ronon always brought back the largest animals he could find, and Rodney was extremely thankful for that. It was very hard to tell when John was hungry. The only real sign was when he turned pale from a lack of energy, and at that point he was likely starving. Rodney hated the idea of John going hungry and having no way to let anyone know.
Rodney looked at John to verify that John's color really was the nice vibrant dark blue that meant he was comfortable and happy. In case it had changed in the last five minutes.
John was looking right back, and his color was the darkest blue Rodney had ever seen on him, almost blue-black.
"Oh. Uh, hi," Rodney said. He smiled nervously, and then felt stupid for feeling nervous. It was just the intensity of John's gaze, which was only amplified by the slit pupils and the dark, dark blue skin around them. He wondered if this was what John's prey felt like.
Rodney had become disturbingly accustomed to feeling like prey since he'd come to the Pegasus galaxy, but it never got any more appealing. He didn't even know for sure that John didn't just see him as prey, like the Wraith did. Maybe that was why John came over all the time: not because he wanted the company or even the nice warm rocks, but because he was waiting for his opportunity to strike.
"Well, that's depressing," Rodney said, still looking at John. "You're not really hoping you can eat me, are you?"
John didn't smile anymore, and of course he didn't reply. But he did give Rodney a long, slow blink, like a friendly cat.
Of course a blink didn't answer Rodney's question, but it made him feel weirdly better anyway.
Rodney didn't realize he'd left his coffee mug behind until two hours later, when he was in his lab and Zelenka had demanded Rodney stop taking his mug and Rodney couldn't find his own to refill it. But when Rodney returned to the habitat, the mug wasn't there.
"Well, damn it," Rodney muttered. He'd liked that mug. He just hoped that it'd been found by one of his sycophantic minions so he'd get it back.
He waited a little while for John before he left, just to say hi. But John was apparently swimming or sleeping on a different rock or in his cave or whatever, because he never came out.
Rodney tried to remind himself that he shouldn't be disappointed.
Rodney carefully put down his coffee and muffin, positioned the pillow on the floor in exactly the right spot and then plopped down onto it with a happy sigh. He slipped the pillow behind his head, wriggled a bit to get perfectly comfortable, then picked up his laptop, flipped it open and set it on his crossed legs.
"That's better," he said to himself. It was nice and quiet down in the habitat room, as opposed to the constant excited din of the labs.
Rodney had never thought he'd miss going through the Gate this much. But it hadn't felt...right, being on anyone else's team. And he had years' worth of work to catch up on, so he figured he was just as useful staying in the city.
But he'd readily admit that he'd liked how quiet it was, on the barely-inhabited planets. And he missed being alone with his team. Sometimes he felt like he barely got to see them anymore.
The other part of why he kept coming down here was John. Rodney knew about denial, thank you very much, despite Heightmeyer giving him her big, concerned doe eyes about it all the damn time. Rodney wasn't deluded enough to think that John would suddenly appear one day with pink skin and hazel eyes and his usual smirk like nothing had ever happened.
But John--this John, and Rodney damn well knew the difference--always came over as soon as Rodney sat down. Rodney had lived with cats. He remembered how they would follow him around from room to room, even if they didn't want petting. He remembered that they got lonely.
Rodney did, however, realize that John wasn't catlike enough to be lonely. And God knew Ronon and Teyla visited him as often as Rodney did whenever they were in the city. And Major Lorne came by too, and even Elizabeth, though she never stayed long. Even Caldwell visited from time to time. Rodney found it really funny how badly John's blank stare obviously unnerved him.
But still. Maybe John appreciated the company, somewhere in that insect-lizard brain of his. And it was quiet down there anyway.
Rodney scowled at himself for getting maudlin, then picked up his muffin and took a big bite. He washed it down with some coffee and saw John appear out of nowhere and nearly spit everything onto the keyboard.
"Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed when he could speak without choking himself. "Must you do that every. Single. Time? Are you trying to kill me? My heart almost exploded!"
John just blinked slowly at him with his normal inscrutable-lizard gaze, then settled onto his usual place on the rocks and lay down on his stomach. Rodney had no idea if John kept scaring him on purpose, or even recognized Rodney's reaction.
Sometimes Rodney thought he'd give all his PhDs to know what, if anything, was going on behind those stark yellow eyes.
"You'll miss me when I'm dead, you know," Rodney said, taking a sip of his coffee.
John said nothing, like he always did. One day Rodney was sure he'd stop waiting for John to speak again.
His mood a little soured, Rodney put his coffee down and began working. "Lorne's team brought back something interesting from PX-431. You know, the one we visited with the big animals that looked like cows but were actually dogs? Yeah, that one. Well, the energy reading from that temple building turned out to actually mean something for once. Here, look."
Rodney twisted his laptop screen so John could look at it. Of course John never responded to anything on the screen, but Rodney had stopped feeling foolish for essentially conversing with himself weeks ago. It didn't hurt anyone for him to...pretend that John could interact with him. And what Heightmeyer didn't know would hurt even less. And if Chuck or whoever laughed at him over the video feed, well, good for them. Rodney had always treated his pets like they understood him, rather than just cooing at them like they were demented babies.
"Not that I think of you as a pet in any way, shape or form," he said quickly to John, as if John could somehow read his mind. "I think of you as, well, you." Rodney sighed. "Which I guess is the problem."
He looked at John. John looked back.
"You're not really in there anymore, are you?" Rodney said softly. When he blinked there were tears on his cheeks, but he didn't bother to wipe them away. John didn't care if he cried. "I know I should accept that you're gone. Heightmeyer keeps saying I should." He snorted a damp laugh. "Hell, Teyla says I should, and she's always right. But..." He swallowed. "I can't. I don't want to. I keep telling myself I'm not going to come down here anymore, and then I...I just can't do it. You're--"
He took a breath. "You were my best friend. And, well, that's it."
This time he did wipe his eyes. "Sorry about that." Rodney briskly rubbed his palms together. "All right. Let's get to work."
His radio clicked on.
"Damn it, Zelenka, what now?" Rodney demanded, then smacked his palm over his face as he heard Radek's answer. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me. Fine. Yes, I'll be right there." Rodney cut the connection. "Fucking hell!" he snapped his laptop shut and heaved himself to his feet. "I have to go," he explained to John, who'd lifted his head when Rodney stood up. "Either Atlantis thinks that there's a fire at the Southern pier, or there really is a fire at the Southern pier, but either way it's a shit-storm in the making. They're sending a jumper out now to check, but whatever's going on, they obviously can't handle it by themselves."
John pulled himself up to his knees and elbows, as if he were preparing to launch into that bizarre crawling thing of his.
"Don't worry about it. It's nothing that can affect you," Rodney said. He picked up his half-empty mug of coffee, certain that he'd need it, and then began to walk to the door. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said to John over his shoulder, as if it would make a difference.
He made a mental note to come back for the pillows, only to promptly forget it when the pier fire turned out to be completely real. And hours later, when he staggered back to the habitat room exhausted and covered in soot and ash, both of the pillows were gone.
"John's stealing stuff," Rodney said to Ronon and Teyla. "Look."
He'd called them to his quarters and now they were all sitting on the floor in front of his bed, crowded close around his little laptop screen on his lap like they were doing something illicit. Rodney clicked on the downloaded camera feed, and the screen filled with the view of the habitat room. The disturbingly prison-like bars stretched from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall, their uniform surface broken only by the reinforced metal of the door to get in. No one used it except to deliver John's meals-on-hooves. Between the bars and the doorway to the habitat room was the space where Rodney liked to sit. The two pillows he'd been using before the fire were right where he'd left them near the bars.
John was up on his rocks, the way Rodney had last seen him as he'd gone out the door. John was perfectly still, as if he'd been carved out of the stone he was crouched on. Nothing moved except the occasional random flicker of the force shield.
"Don't see anything," Ronon said.
"Wait for it," Rodney said.
They waited. Four minutes went by, ticking steadily in the upper corner of the screen. Then suddenly John went from complete stillness to such quick movement it was as if he'd teleported off the rocks to the bars of the cage. He sat on his haunches, looking through the bars at the pillows. His expression was just as blank as it'd been for the more than three months since he'd succumbed to the retrovirus, but his focus was unmistakable.
"I didn't realize he was so aware," Teyla said quietly.
"He looks like Sheppard, like that," Ronon said.
For a moment Rodney's chest was too tight to speak. "Yeah, well, he's not," he managed thickly. "But, ah, watch this."
On the screen, John hunkered down until he was on his elbows and knees, and then edged closer to the bars until his nose was almost touching the force shield. Then he lay flat on his stomach and slowly stuck his arm through the bars at the bottom of the cage where they met the floor and the wall.
"What's he doing?" Ronon said. Both he and Teyla leaned closer to the screen.
"There's a tiny gap there, in that portion of the force shield," Rodney explained, voice hushed. "I have no idea how he found it--maybe it sounds different to him. Or smells different, or something."
While they watched, John pressed his upper body right against the bars, stretching his arm out as far as he could. Arcs of light danced over his head and shoulders and even though Rodney had seen this before, he couldn't help his noise of horrified sympathy at the involuntary ripples in the muscles of John's arm.
"That must hurt," Teyla said.
"Yeah." Rodney swallowed.
"Maybe he can't feel it?" Ronon asked them.
"Maybe," Rodney said. It was impossible to tell by John's face if he was in pain. But his extended arm shook more and more noticeably as he groped for the pillows.
"How long does this continue?" Teyla looked at Rodney with her eyes widened in horror. "He's damaging himself!"
"There!" Ronon pointed at the screen, where John finally stabbed his claws into the first pillow. All three of them exhaled in relief as he snatched it up and yanked it through the bars. One of the seams popped, but John didn't react to the tufts of stuffing that spilled out. He just shoved the pillow aside and began the whole torturous procedure over again.
"All right," Rodney said on a whoosh of air when John had finally pulled the second pillow through the bars. "Now, watch this."
"He's pale," Teyla said. John was resting, panting with his mouth open.
"Yeah." Ronon nodded. "It must've hurt, if he looks like that."
"It might've just been the exertion," Rodney said hopefully. He wasn't surprised that Ronon and Teyla had made the same observations about John's color changes that he had. "He'll go blue again in a minute."
They watched silently while John's color slowly darkened from blue-grey back to dark blue. Then just as suddenly as he'd moved before, John snatched up both pillows and sprang to his feet, crushing the pillows against his chest. He walked awkwardly, like a dog balanced on its hind legs, but he was still incredibly fast. In the space of a blink he'd vanished into the depths of his habitat, leaving the rest of the video to spool out as if he'd never been there.
"So, that's it," Rodney said unnecessarily. He slapped the laptop shut and then looked at Teyla and Ronon. "I'm almost certain he took one of my coffee mugs as well. But I still don't know if it means anything."
"You mean, you don't know if some part of John may have been restored to us," Teyla said carefully. Rodney could see the same wary hope in her eyes.
"I dunno," Ronon said. "I had a cherru when I was a kid. It did the same thing. Took anything it could pick up and hid it under my bed."
"I had a similar companion," Teyla said. She smiled briefly at the memory. "But we have no reason to believe that John's motivation is so...basic."
Rodney sighed gustily, running his fingers through his hair. "But we don't have reason to think it isn't basic, either. For all we know, he just grabs whatever's in reach and hoards it in the back of his cave. Or dumps it in his pond."
"'Stuff wasn't in reach," Ronon said. "He worked damn hard for it."
Rodney nodded slowly, thinking. Then he jerked his head up and snapped his fingers. "An experiment! We'll run an experiment!" He looked at Teyla. "Teyla, what do you have that you wouldn't mind John taking?"
"I have many things he may have," Teyla said seriously. "But to what end, if he merely takes everything near to him?"
"But what if he doesn't?" Rodney asked them. "What if he only takes things from the three of us? Or just me?"
"Rodney." Teyla put her small hand on his, her lovely face suffused with sympathy. "We all want to believe that John still exists somewhere in that creature's mind. But that doesn't make it true."
Ronon shrugged. "My cherru only slept on my bed. I raised her, so I was her favorite of all my brothers and sisters. But she was still just a cherru."
"John's not a cherru, whatever the hell that is," Rodney snapped. He yanked his hand away from Teyla, glaring at her and Ronon. "God, you both sound like Elizabeth! Or Heightmeyer! Why is everyone so unwilling to believe that John might still be alive?"
Teyla met his glare with the same, implacable sympathy. "Sometimes hope is more damaging than acceptance."
"He was a warrior, and he died fighting the Wraith," Ronon said.
Rodney shoved his laptop off his lap and stood. "John's not a damn cherru." He began pacing, furious. "He's not just some stupid animal that... You saw him in the video! He knew what he was doing! He--" Rodney's traitorous eyes started welling again, and he swallowed convulsively then turned away from his friends, burying his face in his hands.
He heard Teyla's light footsteps before she put her arms around him. He was angry enough to push her away, but not stupid enough to reject the comfort. He leaned into her embrace instead. A moment later, one of Ronon's thick arms wrapped around Rodney as well.
"We miss him too, Rodney," Teyla said. "Very much."
"Yeah," Ronon said.
Rodney nodded because it hurt to speak. But he untangled his arms so he could hug his friends back.
But he still did the experiment.
John snatched up Teyla's scarf and Ronon's arm cuff as readily as he'd taken Rodney's mug and pillows. He took Zelenka's mug as well after Rodney pilfered it out of the lab, but then left it on the ground next to his rocks, as if it didn't rate the full run-off-and-hide-it treatment. John grabbed but then dropped the water bottle Lorne had forgotten at a staff meeting, but he bounded off with the Sharpie Rodney borrowed out of Elizabeth's desk drawer.
He didn't touch anything of Carson's, no matter how close Rodney placed it to the bars. Rodney wondered if somewhere, deep down, John was still angry. Rodney couldn't blame him.
John took one of the baseball caps that Aiden had left behind. That got hidden, too.
But Rodney didn't tell Elizabeth or Caldwell or Carson about it, because Ronon and Teyla were right: it didn't prove anything more than maybe John preferred certain people's scents. Lots of animals did that.
It didn't stop Rodney from bringing more things for John though. Like his second- and third-favorite mugs or the fork he'd used at lunch or the ugly cream and blue colored expedition jacket he hadn't worn since he was issued the nicer grey one. He liked watching the video feed later, of John taking the little gifts and running off with them. Rodney made sure to put everything right next to the hole in the shield, so John wouldn't get hurt.
He was sure John had no idea that Rodney was deliberately leaving things for him, but John seemed to enjoy it anyway, in whatever manner he could. John was content, and Rodney was happy for him.
Strangely, that was good enough.
And then came the day that Rodney decided they all must've lost their collective minds somewhere in space. Because Major Lorne brought back a stasis pod during a routine surveillance mission that promptly zapped Elizabeth with the brainwaves of a real-life Sleeping Beauty who 'just wanted to kiss her darling husband one last time'. And not only did Rodney buy that load of bullshit hook, line and sinker, but he practically shoved Lorne into the darling husband's brain-zapping beam to let Beauty do it.
Only for everything to go to shit a second after their liplock, when it turned out that they weren't devoted husband and wife but enemy soldiers from a long-forgotten war. Enemy soldiers who loathed each other so much, that they were willing to destroy both their stolen bodies and the entirety of Atlantis, just to wrap their lying hands around each other's lying neck.
And now Thalen--the vindictive fucker who'd taken over Lorne--had gotten into the Power Room and shot up the main generator and the Naqahdah backups and blacked out the whole city.
The dark Power Room felt especially closed-in and oppressive, even with Rodney's flashlight and two Marines guarding the door. It wasn't just the darkness or the two psychopaths gleefully hunting each other, though. It was how very aware Rodney was of their exact level of helplessness until he could fix the control system for the ZPM. They had no lights, no communications, no sensors, and no shields.
No shields. Like the one surrounding John's habitat. And without it he might be strong enough to get out.
Rodney tried not to think about that: John running amok in the city. Who John might hurt. Who might hurt him.
Rodney grimaced at the handful of frayed wires in his hand, mentally counting down the minutes it would take him to reconnect enough of them to bring the city back online. Too long. It always took too long.
Major Evan Lorne was a good choice for a body, though his voiceless screaming was annoyingly loud. Phebus had outdone herself. She'd always been a fantastic liar.
Of course, she wasn't as bright as she liked to think she was, otherwise why cajole someone in such good condition and with such expert tactical knowledge into harboring Thalen's consciousness? It would've been far more expedient to get him put into the screeching coward of a scientist with such lousy aim. She could've killed him before he'd managed to get out of the room.
Thalen grinned to himself. Then again, he could've killed her just as easily, instead of indulging himself in that kiss and then running.
Evan--I can call you that, right, Evan? Since we've become so close?--called what he and Phebus were doing 'playing hide and seek'. It was evidentially an idiotic child's game, but Thalen agreed the name worked well enough.
Olly, olly, oxenfree! Thalen sing-songed in his head, just to hear Evan's furious growl in return. Are you ashamed that I know everything, Evan? Maybe I should turn my radio on and tell Colonel Caldwell about you and Dr. Parrish. Think he'd be interested? That's unbelievably unprofessional, by the way, fucking your subordinate. You would've been shot, if you were under my command.
Thalen's grin widened at Evan's helpless rage, though he didn't let himself get distracted. Phebus was stupid, but she was damn persistent. And if the women whose body she stole knew the city as well as Evan did, then it was likely she would've come down here to find him--
There was a very faint sound, like metal scraping metal.
Thalen whirled, gun up and firing with Evan's excellent reflexes. Only it hadn't been Phebus, standing behind him.
Thalen didn't know what the fuck it was, except that it was silvery-blue in the dark and looked like a cross between a spiny lizard and a man. Evan's brain was a useless mess of shock and revulsion and guilt and sympathy and hatred and anger and fear. Some of it was aimed at Thalen and some of it was aimed at the monster, but none of it made enough sense for Thalen to have the first clue what the hell he'd just shot at.
But it was fast. Thalen had never seen anything twist out of the way of bullets, which ended up grazing streaks across the monster's belly instead of perforating him. Thalen was still firing when it ripped the P90 out of his hands. Then it grabbed him around the neck and lifted him off the floor.
Evan was yelling, Sheppard! Sheppard, no! but he needed oxygen just as much as Thalen did, and Thalen didn't have enough air to speak. He clutched uselessly at the fingers squeezing his throat and he could feel claws stabbing into him, blood dripping down. It itched.
He couldn't breathe. Whatever this Sheppard thing was, it was going to kill him. Wouldn't Phebus be pissed about that?
The thought had barely rolled through his slowing mind when he dimly heard more gunfire, and then a sound like a hissing scream and then suddenly he was on the floor and he could breathe again.
Phebus was standing over his body; protective as a mama...bear? Thank you, Evan. Protective as a mama bear with her cub, chasing the thing away with a stream of bullets. And Thalen wished he had enough air to laugh, because of course Phebus would be so petty that she'd take on a lizard creature right out of a nightmare just to make sure she got to kill Thalen herself.
He'd dropped his gun and his head was swimming so badly from the oxygen deprivation that he could barely move. But Thalen was still able to give Phebus his best 'fuck you' grin with Evan's mouth, just to watch her smug expression blacken to rage.
"You only got me because of Sheppard," he croaked. "And you'll go to your grave knowing that."
"Maybe." Phebus lifted her gun. "But I still got you."
The burst of light crackled over her just as she fired, but her hands jerked so the bullet ricocheted off the floor next to his ear instead of going through his head. Phebus' knees buckled and Thalen watched in grim satisfaction as she crumpled to the floor.
Two Marines thundered up, followed by McKay and Beckett, but Thalen didn't hear what McKay yelled at him because right then the convulsions began.
Thalen died shaking and in terrible pain, but at least that bitch Phebus didn't win. And his legacy would be whatever time she had left to live with that.
"Where's Sheppard? Where is he? What have you done to him?" Rodney demanded, then jerked backwards when Evan began convulsing. "Carson, what's going on?"
"He's having a hypoxic seizure. Give him room!" Carson shouted, and then dropped to his knees to cradle Evan's head as best he could so the poor lad wouldn't bash his brains out against the floor. Carson hit his radio, calling in the medical emergency. Then he looked at Rodney. "Is there anything round here we can use to give him oxygen?"
"Does this look like an emergency room?" Rodney retorted. Carson ignored it. He was well used to how snappy Rodney got when he was anxious, and even as he spoke Rodney was obviously looking for some means to help. "Maybe a window...?"
"I think he's coming around," said one of the Marines. She had her stunner aimed at Elizabeth.
Evan finally went still. Carson immediately tried to roll him into the recovery position, but Evan pushed his hands away and sat up, squinting at the flashlight beam Rodney was aiming at him. "Ow," he said hoarsely, rubbing his throat.
Instantly the boy Marine had his stunner up and aimed at him. "Please back away, doctor. We don't know who he is."
"I'm me, Sergeant," Evan said. He coughed. "Thalen's dead. That's what the convulsions were--him dying." He looked up at Rodney. "I think Sheppard saved my life. If he hadn't found Thalen first, Phebus probably would have." He coughed again and grimaced. "I'm sorry I shot him."
"It wasn't you," Rodney said, but he was distracted by the fat drops of red on the floor, and how they made a trail leading away until they disappeared in the dark.
"With all due respect, Dr. McKay, we don't know that yet," the female Marine said.
Predictably, Rodney ignored the Marine. He tapped his radio. "Caldwell? Yeah, this is McKay. No, the power isn't fixed yet, or the lights would be on. We got a little distracted by Thalen and Phebus attacking each other in the corridor. And we're still waiting on a medical team, by the way. Yes, they're contained. Didn't you just hear that from Carson?"
Carson sighed and went over to Elizabeth to check her pulse, but as he'd assumed she was fine. He helped the Marine guarding her to lay her out more comfortably on the floor, and only winced a little bit when she insisted on cuffing Elizabeth's wrists and ankles. Better safe than sorry, and all that.
Rodney had gone from terse to all-out shouting now. "Sheppard's wounded! And he might be scared, and hurt someone--" Rodney grimaced. "Or, yes. Eat someone. Fine. But the point is, that we need to find him!"
Carson helped Evan sit leaning against the nearest wall, and Evan stoically put up with having his wrists and ankles cuffed as well as Carson examined his injuries.
Meanwhile Rodney huffed air furiously through Caldwell's answer before he clearly couldn't contain himself. "Zelenka can do that! Hell, a trained monkey can do that! I know he's trapped in his quarters! Just cut through the damn door!" He barred his teeth at whatever Caldwell replied. "What part of my saying he is wounded did you not get? He could be dying right now! Don't tell me that doesn't make finding him a priority!
"NO!" Rodney roared so loudly that Carson and even the Marine lad jumped. "No, we cannot wait until after the power is restored to start searching for him! And he's NOT MY FUCKING PET, you son of a bitch! Go ahead! We'll see how much General O'Neill thinks of you treating Colonel Sheppard like some disposable lab rat! Well, get this, Colonel--HE'S NOT DISPOSABLE!"
Rodney yanked his radio out of his ear and threw it at the ground hard enough that it bounced before skidding into the wall. He glared at all of them, his hands shaking with anger.
"I'm going to fix the power," Rodney said, with the tight-lipped control of someone who would likely much rather be screaming bloody murder. He stalked away.
"God, what a mess." Evan closed his eyes and tilted his head back until it clunked against the wall. "I--Thalen--only grazed him. It was Phebus who did the real damage."
"He heals incredibly quickly. I'm certain he'll be just fine," Carson said, though he wasn't certain of that in the least. It didn't look like Phebus had hit any arteries, but there was still a great deal of blood.
He dearly hoped Rodney was able to get the power restored soon.
Caldwell actually kept his word and set up a search for John as soon as Rodney had the power back online, which might've meant he had a speck of decency buried somewhere under that rod up his ass, but didn't stop Rodney from regretting every time he'd defended the man for any reason whatsoever.
But they couldn't find John.
Oh, sure, they had no problem spotting his lifesign on the biometric sensor. The problem was that as soon as anyone got near him he vanished; disappearing along the ceiling or down a corridor or through a hole in the wall in one of the more run-down sections of the city. It reminded Rodney of that awful story of the poor cat who got lost at the airport, and how badly that had ended. And John was still bleeding.
This went on for two days.
At first Rodney had hoped John would go back to his habitat if they left the shield off and the door open, but he didn't. Even another one of Ronon's yummy deer-things wasn't enough to lure him back. John didn't hurt anyone--thank God--but that might've just been because he didn't get close enough to anyone to attack them. John only existed as a white dot on a digital map of the city, as intangible and elusive as a ghost.
When Rodney had been searching for 48 hours straight, Jennifer Keller finally gave him the choice of sleeping in his quarters or the infirmary. Rodney chose his quarters.
The most recent information he had on the search was that Ronon and Teyla had almost caught John in one of the cargo bays, but then John had escaped them by scrambling straight up a wall. Ronon told Rodney that they could've still stunned him, but John had climbed so high so quickly that they were worried the fall would kill him.
Rodney, who was sick with worry and exhaustion and had an aching head full of terrified, starving cats, had snapped at them that they should've risked it anyway.
Teyla had calmly told him to go to bed and stay the hell off the radio until the next morning.
He slapped listlessly at his door panel and lurched miserably inside and turned on the lights. Then stopped, blinking at the mess.
The doors that led out to his balcony, which were paneled with extremely hard to break Ancient glass, had been broken. There were shards all over the floor. Everything that had been on his desk was on the floor, too. One tablet seemed to be mostly intact, but the other was lying face up, with the smart glass shattered like it'd been stepped on. His desk chair was on its side, with stuffing leaking forlornly out of rips in the cloth. It looked like almost everything in his closet had been yanked out of the drawers or off the hangers. Most of it was on the floor with all the other debris. Some of it was on top of his expensive prescription mattress, which had been dragged off the bed to lean against the nearest wall like a lopsided A-frame. What was left of his hypoallergenic duvet and bed sheets had been stuffed inside and piled up in front of it. Like a den.
Rodney swallowed. "John?" he called tentatively into the quiet room. Other than the sound of the ocean, it was so quiet that Rodney could hear his own rapid breathing. He took two tentative steps further inside, absently making sure the door had shut and locked behind him. "John? Are you in here?"
His only answer was the faint rustling of moving cloth.
There were large splotches and smears of blood all over the place, dried to rusty brown. So many that Rodney kept stepping in them as he walked closer to the bundle of cloth next to his bed.
Rodney tapped his radio as he slowly hunkered down. "Teyla, Ronon, I think I've found Sheppard," he said, keeping his voice as low and calm as possible, considering he wanted to yell and then maybe throw up. "Yeah--he's in my quarters. Please do not come charging in here. I don't want him to run away again. He seems to be hurt pretty badly." A small circle of blood had soaked through the bundled sheets. "Sure, Ronon. You can break in if you hear me screaming. I'll keep in touch. Rodney out."
Rodney was on his knees now, with one hand on the floor. He turned off his radio and crept forward, forcing himself to move as slowly as possible even though all he wanted to do was grab the nearest handful of cloth and yank it away from the filthy black tufts of hair he could see sticking up behind the ramparts of bed linen
"John?" he said again, slowly reaching for the duvet. "It's me, Rodney. I just want to see if you're all right. Please don't kill me." He finally got a hold of the blanket and carefully pulled it away.
John was huddled at the very back of his makeshift shelter, wedged into the corner he'd made where the mattress touched the side and back walls. He was clutching his side with his knees drawn up, so pale blue he was almost white, and shivering violently though the night air was warm. He was wearing Rodney's orange fleece; Rodney hadn't thought John had enough intelligence anymore to even find it, let alone to figure out how to put it on.
John hissed at him. The light of the room reflected in his yellow eyes.
"John." Rodney swallowed. "John, will you let me look at you, please? You're hurt, and we've all been really worried about you."
John stayed tucked into the corner at the back of his little den, watching Rodney's every move. He had his mouth open, panting in fear.
"It's okay, John," Rodney said. "It's okay. You're safe. No one's going to hurt you again." He slowly reached towards him, wanting to touch John's arm or face, to make some kind of rapport he could use to get John to come to him. "I'm just going to touch you, that's all." Rodney kept talking. "I'm not going to hurt you..."
Rodney snatched his hand back. "Sorry!" he said softly. "Sorry. Okay, I won't do that again."
Rodney had never owned lizards, and John was supposedly more insect-like anyway. But Rodney also knew that John was still genetically very much a mammal, and at a certain point he figured that all warm-blooded animals responded the same. And Rodney had seen cats that acted like this--the ones he'd coaxed out from between dumpsters or from under cars; the ones who were hurt or sick or dying.
The thought was terrifying, and he almost radioed Colonel Caldwell to beg him for a squad or Marines and their Wraith stunners. But Rodney could imagine the aftermath: John might get his wound repaired, but he'd never trust Rodney again.
"Please, John," Rodney said. "You came here so I would help you, didn't you? So please, let me help you. Please?"
He was sure that on some level John knew that Rodney wouldn't hurt him, but he was in too much pain to overcome his instinctive fear. He would only stay hunched in the back of his shelter, watching everything Rodney did.
"Damn it," Rodney muttered. He sat back on his haunches, moving slowly so John wouldn't get any more scared than he already was. "This isn't working. And you're definitely too big to grab by the scruff of the neck." He glanced worriedly at the bloodstain on the duvet, but at least it didn't look any larger.
"All right," Rodney said. He bit his lip, thinking furiously. "You won't let me come in there, and I can't force you to come out, so..."
Rodney remembered at the last moment that he probably shouldn't snap his fingers. He climbed to his feet, careful to move slowly and not get too close to the den. He went to his bathroom, walking slowly so he wouldn't break his neck on any of the junk on the floor. On the way he grabbed the tablet John hadn't crushed.
In the bathroom he turned on the overhead light to the dimmest possible setting. He left the door open. Then he turned on the hot water in the bath, keeping the drain open, and let it run. Then he sat down on the floor. And waited.
The room warmed up very quickly as it filled with steam. Rodney could see clouds of it billowing out into his bedroom. His started sweating, his shirt sticking uncomfortably in the damp heat, making it too unpleasant to work on his tablet. And he didn't even want to think about how much power it was costing the city to heat and recycle the water. But he didn't get up and he left the water running.
According to his tablet, twelve minutes passed before John slowly poked his head around the doorway.
Rodney's heart did a painful little convulsion in his chest, but he barely glanced up at John and then pointedly kept his eyes on his tablet, pretending to pay no attention at all as John slowly crept into the room.
Even with the one glance, Rodney could see that John moved awkwardly, obviously favoring his hurt side. Blood had soaked through the fleece, dying it dark red-orange. It was all Rodney could do to stay where he was and not reach for John, but he was worried any movement at all would scare him off. Rodney really didn't think John could survive another two days scrambling through the city.
So Rodney kept his eyes down and his body still, trying to halo himself with an aura of peace and calm, which was ironic enough to have been hilarious in other circumstances. He was trying so hard that when he felt the touch on his thigh he almost hit the ceiling.
John lurched back from him and Rodney froze completely, terrified that John would run. But after a minute of tense stillness, John slowly uncoiled and inched forward again.
This time Rodney barely dared to breathe when John touched him again, or lay down with his head on Rodney's leg. It was hard to tell with John's thick, extremely messy hair in the way, but Rodney thought that maybe John closed his eyes.
Rodney swallowed. "Hey, John," he said, very softly. He carefully eased the tablet onto the floor on his other side, trying very hard not to move too much. John was lying on his right side, so that his wounded left side had no pressure on it. "That looks like it hurts--can I look at it, please? I just want to see how bad it is, that's all." He pretended that John's lack of response meant he didn't mind, and picked up a loose fold of the fleece top.
Rodney jerked his hand away. "Okay, no touching." He put his hand behind his back. "But I don't understand--why didn't you eat anyone to heal yourself? There's a deer-thing in your habitat. Why didn't you go back there? Or were you planning on eating Lorne when Phebus shot you? Is that it?"
John shifted, throwing his arms around Rodney's waist. Rodney goggled. "Are you here to eat me?"
"No," John said.
"Oh, good," Rodney said on a breath. "Because nothing you've done since the shield went down really makes any...Oh my God! Did you just talk to me?"
John did some kind of nuzzling, cat head-butt thing on Rodney's stomach.
"John?" Rodney's voice was so small the word barely escaped his mouth. He hesitated, then steeled himself for disaster and put his hand on John's head.
John sighed. "R'dne."
"Oh my God," Rodney said again. He felt like some plucked string inside him had finally stretched beyond its elastic limit and snapped. "Oh my God, John!" He curled over John, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to breathe without each exhale becoming an explosive sob. Rodney had never known that relief could hurt, but this was so big, so much at once that it felt like agony.
The palm of John's hand thumped on his leg; one of John's typical sympathy pats, only strong enough to leave bruises. Rodney didn't care. "God, I'm so stupid. I'm so stupid. I'm sorry. You were trying to find me, weren't you? That's why you didn't go back. You wanted my help." He scrubbed at one eye with the ball of his thumb. "I didn't know. I didn't think you..." He gulped. "I didn't think you remembered me."
John took his wrist, pulling Rodney's hand away from his face. He was surprisingly gentle, considering his claws and his strength. He brought Rodney's palm in front of his face, then did his open-mouth sniffing thing. "R'dne," he said again, then licked a slimy line from Rodney's wrist to his fingers.
Rodney snorted a wet, incredulous laugh. "Did you just lick me?"
"Mmm," John said. He tried to sit up, then sucked in a breath and clutched his side.
"Oh, no, no. Don't do that! You're wounded!" Rodney put his hand on John's shoulder, gently holding him down. John let him. "Hang on. I'm radioing for help."
He turned his radio to his team's channel. "Teyla, Ronon--It's okay, you can come in now. Yes, yes, he's still hurt. He needs a medical team. But, guys?" Rodney's voice cracked. He had to clear his throat to talk over the sound of the still-running water. "He's here. John spoke to me. He's right here."
John walked into Rodney's quarters with a cardboard box in his arms. Rodney turned in his desk chair to watch as he crossed the room to let the box thump down on top of the bed.
"I think the Goodwill is two corridors down," Rodney said, grinning. He'd been grinning a lot, recently.
John didn't grin. He smiled, but it seemed uncertain. The real tell though was how he absently rubbed at the crook of his right arm, where there was a small, blue-grey scar. He only did that when he was upset or nervous. "I figured I should return your stuff," he said.
Rodney's grin slid right off his face. He got up and came over to the bed. He looked at all the neatly-arranged knickknacks in the box, then at John. "Why?"
John shrugged. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Because it's yours?" He jerked his chin at it. "Go ahead."
Rodney looked at John again, then picked up the box and dumped the contents on the bed. Out tumbled Teyla's scarf and Rodney's mugs and jacket and pillows--those were somewhat worse for wear--and Elizabeth's sharpie and Ronon's cuff and even Zelenka's mug and the fork. Rodney wouldn't've been surprised if John had included Evan's half-empty bottle of water.
"You're giving everything back?"
John shrugged, though he kept looking at the objects and avoiding Rodney's eyes. "Well, I only have this stuff because I stole it, right?"
"No," Rodney said slowly. He saw Aiden's cap brim peeking out from underneath his jacket, and for some reason that made him angry. "You have this stuff because we gave it to you." He winced, thinking of Zelenka's mug and the sharpie. "Well, maybe not everything, but--"
John huffed out an annoyed breath. "Teyla and Ronon wouldn't take their things back either." He put his hands on his hips, glaring down at the items like they'd offended him. "I don't get it. I cleaned them!" He turned his glare on Rodney. "I had these things for what? Three weeks? And now they're not good enough for you anymore?"
"Well, why aren't they good enough for you?" Rodney retorted. "What part of we gave them to you don't you understand?"
"You didn't give them to me!" John shouted. "You gave...you put them out for that thing in there to make off with. That wasn't me!"
"Of course that was you," Rodney snapped. "It was you who got sick and basically died on us! And we gave you these stupid gifts because it made you happy and it let us pretend for a few minutes that you weren't completely gone!" Maybe he shouldn't have been yelling, but fuck it. He figured he was entitled. "It was the only thing we could do for you, John! That and the stupid habitat! We missed you so damn much..." He had to stop and clench his jaw until it didn't hurt to talk again. Then he gestured at the objects still scattered on the bed. "So don't be such a selfish prick, and keep the fucking things!"
John blinked. Then he smirked. "Normally it's the other way around."
Rodney crossed his arms, glowering. "Way to miss the point, Sheppard."
"I didn't miss the point. Really," John said. He picked up Aiden's cap, smoothing his fingers over the brim. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Rodney said. He rolled his eyes. "Only you would need to be convinced to keep a present."
John smirked again, though there wasn't much humor in it. "Yeah, probably." He put Aiden's cap down gently on the bed, then quirked an eyebrow at Rodney. "You really missed me, huh?"
"Of course I did," Rodney picked up his jacket and irritably folded it. "Why else would I spend hours sitting on a cold floor in a dark room just so you could sun yourself and blink at me every two minutes?"
John picked up Teyla's scarf and started folding it as well. "Those rocks were awesome."
Rodney grinned. "I knew you'd like them." He frowned at his jacket, shook it out and started folding it again.
John looked at him, surprised. "You put those rocks in there for me?"
Rodney snorted. "Who do you think designed your habitat?" He gave up on the jacket and left it crumpled on the bed. John could hang it up. "But I thought you said you didn't remember anything."
"I said I barely remember it, not that it's all gone." John folded Ronon's arm cuff and put it in the box next to the scarf. "You really designed that whole thing for me?"
"No," Rodney said flatly. "I designed it for the other Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard who turned into a lizard bug. Yes, John," he added with exaggerated patience. "I designed the habitat for you."
"Thank you," John said, very seriously. "I remember the rocks, and the pond." He grinned a little. "The pond was great." He put Aiden's hat into the box as carefully as if it were a priceless artifact. "And thanks for...hanging out there. I remember feeling...comfortable, being next to you."
Rodney shrugged to hide how ridiculously happy that made him. "Well, it was a lot quieter than in the lab. It's amazing how much work I could get done with you non-verbal."
John raised his eyebrows. "I thought you just said you missed me."
"I did miss you," Rodney said. "I sat on my very hard bathroom floor letting you crush me and slather me with bug spit while I nearly died of heat prostration--If that's not undying devotion, I don't know what is."
He'd started it as a joke, but by the time he finished what he was saying, he was sure it was painfully obvious how much he'd meant it.
John licked his lips. "Me neither," he said, voice rough.
"Yes, well," Rodney said, uncomfortable with the sudden intensity of John's gaze. "You could probably say the same thing about you scrambling through the city for two days while you were slowly bleeding to death."
"Yeah," John said. "You could." He stepped closer, wrapping his hand around Rodney's.
"John?" Rodney asked. He looked at his hand, held tight but gently in John's, then up at John's face. "What are you doing?"
"I wasn't trying to find you because I needed your help, Rodney," John said. And then he lifted Rodney's hand to his mouth and deliberately placed a chaste kiss on the palm.
Rodney blinked at their joined hands, his eyes wide with shock. "Seriously?"
John nodded, then abruptly dropped Rodney's hand and stepped back. "I'm sorry. That was out of line. I won't--"
"Are you kidding me?" Rodney exclaimed. He closed the distance between them, grabbed John's head and pulled him in to a kiss. John wrapped his arms tight around Rodney, and the sound of relief and want that came out of John's throat took Rodney's breath with it.
When Rodney drew back, John's eyes were bright and he was smiling in a way that Rodney hadn't seen since before John got infected with the retrovirus. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, you idiot." Rodney grinned back at him. "Do you think I'd give my first expedition jacket to just anyone?"
"Cool." John started nuzzling Rodney's neck in a way that was very similar to when he was still lizardy and hugging Rodney in the bathroom. "I should give you mine, then."
Rodney kissed John for that, because there really wasn't any way he could say what he was thinking without horribly embarrassing them both. "But you're giving me my orange fleece back, right?" He asked when they broke apart again. "Because you did actually steal that."
"Yes I did," John said happily. "It smelled like you."
"Oh. Well, that's sweet. I think," Rodney said. "But, you're giving it back, right?"
"Nope," John said, just as happily. "It's mine." He tugged Rodney closer. "I'll keep you warm."
Rodney rolled his eyes and John laughed like that was exactly the answer he wanted.
Rodney couldn't help laughing too, because John's laugh was so loud and ridiculous and Rodney had missed it--Rodney had missed John--so very, very much. And when John, still chuckling, pulled him in for another kiss of course Rodney let him.
And if John really wanted the orange fleece... Well, Rodney decided he could live with that.