August, 2006; Third Year of the Atlantis Expedition; New Lantea, Pegasus Galaxy
The stone was smooth and dark grey, thicker on one end and shaped like an almond. It was about half the size of his palm and looked very much like a stone meant for skipping on water, except that part of it was covered with thin, curving lines.
"I think I found something," Colonel John Sheppard called over his shoulder. He could hear the scientists bustling around in the background and chatting excitedly with each other. It'd been a long time since the Expedition had found anything that the Ancients had left behind that was intact enough to study.
The stone that'd caught his eye was one of at least twenty that had doubtlessly once been carefully held in some sort of special housing, but now lay scattered on the cracked stone floor among bits and pieces of broken metal and smashed crystals. But two of the stones were still whole, and they'd obviously had a purpose. If they were lucky, then maybe that purpose would be something they could use.
If they were exceptionally lucky, it'd be something they could use against the Orcs.
Dr. Zelenka would've told him not to touch anything in the abandoned outpost before they knew what it was for. John could practically hear Radek's voice in his head, admonishing him worriedly before giving up and swearing in Czech. But Radek wasn't there anymore, and no one even looked at John as he picked up the closer stone and blew the dust off, then ran his thumbs over the delicate lines.
It tingled in his hand like a mild electric shock. John almost dropped the artifact in surprise, only to be given a far worse one when the entire building shook in response to a massive explosion somewhere in the distance.
The Orcs had found them again.
"Everyone! Back to the gate! Get out! Now!" John yelled. He shoved the stone into a pocket so he could snatch up his R90, the move automatic despite the fact he knew the gun was useless to him. The Orcs preferred to attack with their ships, not in person.
Another blast, this one closer, sent John to his knees. He lurched back to his feet and ran, herding the group in front of him. The scientists and Marines pounded out into the sunshine with John coming last to make sure everyone else had escaped. It felt like he barely cleared the pitted metal entrance before the Orcs finally found their target. They sent a bolt of green light directly into the outpost, obliterating it in an eruption of stone and metal and fire.
That time they made it back to Atlantis with no losses. The Orcs were intent on pulverizing the large, easy target of the outpost, and either they ignored the humans running to the gate or their sensors couldn't find them. John feared it was the former: that the Orcs didn't think the pitiful Lanteans were worth the effort of killing them.
The stone stayed in John's pocket through the chaos of the return to Atlantis and the miserable debriefings afterwards. He didn't even remember he had it until he was in his quarters changing for bed. He stood there for a long moment just looking at it, so exhausted that the intricate lines wavered under his eyes.
The stone didn't even tingle in his hand anymore. John was sure that was because whichever of the other artifacts it had been made to work with was gone. Whatever it might have been, however it could possibly have helped them, the stone was completely useless now.
John thought about giving it to the archeologists to study, or maybe letting some of his frustration out by pitching it into the ocean. He ended up just putting the stone on his desk, figuring he'd decide what to do with it when he'd had some sleep.
He never really did figure out what to do with it. The next morning he put it into his pocket with the vague idea of bringing it to the archeologists later, but then he got busy and forgot. He forgot the next day as well, and the day after that, but he kept putting the stone in his pocket anyway. It had a nice texture and pleasant heft to it. The stone was always a little bit warm from his body, and John liked running his thumb over the lines.
Eventually, he just carried the stone around with him all the time. He'd keep it in his pants pocket in the city, or put it in his tac vest when he went through the gate, like a good–luck charm. When he was thinking he would often turn it over and over in his hand.
The stone became part of John's everyday stuff, like his wristband or his dog tags. He'd leave it on his desk or night table before he slept, then put it into a pocket in the morning. He knew it was kind of stupid, carrying a useless rock around with him. But it was one thing that was his, and he liked it. He didn't have much of either anymore.
June, 2009; Fifth Year of the Landry Administration; Siberia
"Here." Dr. Svetlana Markov took Rodney McKay's hand and slapped something into it. "Our team brought this back from off–world. Find out what it does."
Rodney barely glanced at the object in his hand, which looked like nothing more interesting than a smooth, almond-shaped dark stone about half the size of his palm. "It's a rock." He smacked it down onto the lab table, making the dented and scuffed metal ring. The Czech with the name Rodney could never remember looked up like a startled rabbit and then narrowed his eyes at him.
"We are certain it's Ancient," Svetlana said. She pulled her elegantly engraved cigarette case out of her lab coat pocket and flipped it open. "It was found with a cache of artifacts that were definitely of Ancient design."
"Great," Rodney snorted. He flicked one of the stone's rounded ends and it started turning in a slow spin. "So instead of, I don't know, bringing back one of the actual artifacts, Colonel Numbskullvitch takes the rock. I bet you he'd trade a cow for beans, too."
"We must make do with what we can smuggle out of the mountain, Rodney," Svetlana said with mild reproach, but then murmured something extremely uncomplimentary about the Americans before she put the cigarette in her mouth. She snapped the case shut, then fished around in another pocket until she pulled out an American Zippo lighter with a picture of a Cadillac on it.
"So glad to see the spirit of international cooperation continues to thrive in the face of adversity," Rodney said. He flicked the stone again and watched its leisurely rotation. It was convex, with intricately–carved lines weaving over it.
Svetlana grunted and lit her cigarette. "If the SGC didn't insist on keeping everything even remotely useful for themselves, it would not be necessary to resort to other means."
"You know, you could let me work at the Ancient outpost your government Shanghaied from the Americans," Rodney said, trying to sound casual. He spread a hand. "I mean, you really should make better use of my expertise while you've got the opportunity."
"It is not up to me, Rodney," Svetlana said, then smiled sweetly around her cigarette. "But if it were, I'd rather have you here than where you can spy for the Americans."
Rodney scowled. "I'm Canadian. Why the hell do you think I'd risk getting locked up in one of your gulags for the Americans? Not that this place is much different."
"I think you're smart enough to know not to spit in the well you drink from," Svetlana said. "Which is of course the American one." She ignored Rodney's eye roll and touched the stone with a fingertip, tracing the lines. "Ivana Ivanovna said she felt tingling when I gave it to her, but she couldn't make it do anything."
"I'm sure that if I drank as much Vodka as Ivana does, I'd feel 'tingling' when I touched things, too," Rodney said. He glared at the stone. It was actually kind of pretty. "She couldn't make it do anything because it's a rock." He pushed it towards Svetlana and then glanced over his shoulder at the Czech, who was blatantly pretending not to listen. "Give it to Zelunka. I'm sure he needs the work."
"It is Zelenka, and I am far more busy than you, you repulsive little—"
"Yeah, yeah, you wish," Rodney waved his hand dismissively as Zelenka started snarling at him in his native language. Then Rodney coughed violently, trying to fan away Svetlana's cigarette smoke. "Hey, I have allergies! Do you mind?"
"Sadly, you are our foremost expert on Ancient technology," Svetlana said, inhaling through her cigarette and ignoring Rodney's glower. She pushed the stone back to him. "Report to me if you find anything."
"I'll throw it through your window with a note wrapped around it!" Rodney called after her. He coughed again, shaking his head to himself and fanning the air. He took his glasses off to rub his stinging eyes then cleaned the lenses on the hem of his shirt. "If I get cancer I'm suing the US and Russian governments."
"You know, I think she really likes you," Zelenka said.
"If you only knew how much," Rodney answered. "Magic rocks," he sneered as he resettled himself in front of his keyboard. "I swear I have no idea how they managed to drag themselves out of the Bronze Age." He flicked the little stone once more and it fell into the same slow, hypnotic spin. "I'm in hell. That bastard Landry didn't send me to Siberia, this is hell."
"If you mean, "hell is other people," then I agree with you," Zelenka said. He looked at the stone. "Give it to me, then. I will find out what it does."
"And let you take all the credit when it turns out to be some kind of healing or communication device or something? No thanks." Rodney glared at the stone some more, then scooped it up with an annoyed huff and dropped it into his lab coat pocket.
"Fine." Zelenka threw up his hands. "I hope it makes your balls shrivel up." He angrily yanked his computer nearer to him and started attacking the keys.
"Jealousy is an ugly, ugly emotion, Zelek," Rodney said
"Zelenka!" the little Czech shouted.
"Whatever." Rodney's attention was already back on the program he was running. He could probably improve the Naquadah generators' output by seven percent, if that idiot Lubivitch would listen to him. And seriously, if he was just going to be ignored he could have continued as 'Special–fucking–Advisor–to–the–fucking–President'. At least the food was better at the SGC.
He watched the output information and ignored Zelenka's angry grumbling in the background. Zelenka had only arrived four months ago, and Rodney had been certain he wouldn't be around long enough to bother remembering the little Czech's name. Obviously he was wrong about that.
But Rodney had been assured this would be a temporary assignment with the Russians, helping them get up to speed on the Stargate program. It was basically a sop to the Russian government to make up for decades of US secrecy. Rodney had also managed to convince Landry that it might be easier to defend Earth if there were more than a single country with the technology to do it.
He'd remembered what Colonel Carter from the alternate universe had told him: how President Landry was a good man, and all he needed was someone close to him—like his newly–appointed Special Advisor—to remind him of that. Rodney had been hoping that convincing Landry to share tech would be a good way to start.
He'd been more than a little surprised when Landry agreed so readily. But lately Rodney wondered if Landry had just wanted the excuse to get rid of him.
But that had been six months ago. Rodney was going to be recalled any day now, he was sure of it.
Rodney checked the clock on the bottom of the computer screen, then grinned and pushed away from the lab table. "Ah, dinner, finally." The cafeteria was serving something halfway decent tonight; all the more reason to get there early.
Zelenka demurred when Rodney asked if he wanted to come, which was just as well as far as Rodney was concerned, since it meant more for him. He strode out of the lab humming to himself and smiling, with the stone still in his pocket and already forgotten, pressed up against his heart.
Rodney blindly shoved the door to his quarters open, yawning and groping for the light switch. It wasn't all that late, but he'd been cornered by Lubivitch as he was leaving the cafeteria and even a short conversation with the man sapped Rodney's will to live.
Rodney finally found the switch and then shuffled blearily into his room, locking the door behind him and heading for his computer on autopilot. Tonight would be a very, very good time to get an email from the SGC telling him to catch the next transport to Moscow.
He yawned again and put his glasses on his desk, then started shrugging out of the lab coat, only to stop in puzzlement at the heavy thing that banged against his chest. Right. The stupid rock.
Rodney rolled his eyes and pulled the stone out of his pocket. "Magic rocks." He put it on his desk, making a mental note to corner Ivanovna the next morning and see if her ATA gene could make it do anything besides more tingling.
Maybe it was an Ancient vibrator. Rodney smirked to himself as he finished peeling off his lab coat and dropped it over the back of the ratty chair. Then he leaned over the desk to open his email, casually pulling up the program he'd written to make sure no one could intercept his messages. He thought about putting his glasses back on, but he could read well enough without them. And wearing them always made the bridge of his nose hurt.
There were forty emails from his so–called colleagues inside the base. No one from the SGC had sent him anything.
"Well, fuck," Rodney sighed. He waited a moment and then clicked the 'refresh' button, just in case. He did it three more times before he finally shut the computer down.
He kept staring at the black screen, numb with disappointment. He shouldn't have expected anything yet. He knew that. But God, he wanted to get out of this place so badly.
"Maybe they don't want you anymore," Rodney said to the blur of his reflection. Maybe Landry really had decided that his brilliance just wasn't worth the hassle of dealing with him.
Rodney sat down heavily at his desk. He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling the small line his glasses had dug between his eyes. "I want to go home," he said, aloud in the empty room. He missed his office with the plants and the big windows; he missed his winter condo in Florida and his summer condo in Toronto; he missed his cat and good food and not being cold almost all of the time. He missed his sister, though he knew there would be no point in contacting her.
He missed his ex–wife, even if he and Sam should never have gotten married. They were too alike: each a little more involved in their work than their relationships, each a little overly interested in being right all the time. They were terrible lovers but good friends. Hell, sometimes Sam felt like only friend he'd really had. And she'd died. He was never going to see her again. He was in exile in the frozen ass–end of nowhere and he was never going to see her again.
"Enough," Rodney said sharply to himself. He took a breath and pushed himself away from the desk to stand, pretending it was just eyestrain and fatigue that had him wiping away tears. He heaved out another heavy breath as he turned around, so he didn't have enough air to scream when he saw the stranger sitting on the bed.
"Jesus fucking Christ!" Rodney pushed himself backwards against the desk, sending the chair skidding and nearly knocking his laptop onto the floor. "How'd you get in here?" Rodney glanced frantically at the door, but it was still closed and locked. "What are you doing here?" He groped behind him on the desk for something he could use as a weapon, but all he managed to do was get a handful of stinging cuts when he grabbed a stack of paper. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" He was still leaning backwards over his desk, trying to put as much distance between him and the strange man as possible. He wondered if anyone would hear him if he yelled for help.
The man didn't react at all, as if he had no idea Rodney was even there. He had his head down so Rodney couldn't see his face, just a wild thatch of black hair and an improbably pointed ear. His forearms were resting on his thighs with his hands dangling, and when the stranger lifted them it was only to run his fingers through his hair. Then he let his hands drop again like he hadn't the energy to move more than that.
"Hey," Rodney said, daring to lean away from his desk. "Can you hear me?"
Again there was no reaction. More fascinated than scared now, Rodney took a step closer. "Hello?" He waved his hand in way that the man was sure to notice, but by now it was obvious that whoever this stranger was, he was completely unaware of Rodney's presence. He just stayed sitting on Rodney's bed with his head hanging. He looked completely exhausted, but the kind of exhaustion that didn't come from effort so much as despair, and Rodney felt an unexpected pang of sympathy. His clothes were military, or at least a loose facsimile of something martial, with olive pants and a black tee–shirt, and the silver beads of a dog tag chain Rodney could just see around the man's neck. He also had some kind of handgun in a holster strapped to his thigh.
"Hello?" Rodney tried again. This time he went closer still, until they were almost toe to toe and there was no possible way Rodney could be missed. There was still no reaction. Rodney swallowed, then leaned forward and touched the man on his shoulder, ready to leap backwards. But instead his fingertips drifted through him.
Rodney yanked his hand back with a yelp, even though not only had there been no pain, he hadn't felt anything at all. "Okay," he said, licking his lips. "Either I'm crazy or… or I have no idea what's going on. Unless…!" He'd been able to make their own version of the alternate Carter's Merlin device work, but because of the energy requirements it was still at Area 51. Rodney was working on a version of the device for individual use, but the original one wouldn't be used again unless Earth was threatened by some other enemy they had no hope of defeating.
At least, Rodney had been told it wouldn't be used. But what if someone had? Was it possible that part of the planet was out of phase? That would explain why he could see this person but not hear him or touch him.
"Except, that doesn't work," Rodney said, disgusted at his own stupidity. Even if all of the former Soviet Union was out of phase with the rest of the planet, that wouldn't suddenly make an intangible man appear in his room. The device didn't work like that. Besides, he was still sitting on Rodney's bed, and when Rodney touched it experimentally it was just as solid as it had ever been.
So maybe the man was the only one out of phase? Except that made even less sense. The alternate Carter had told him that there had been accidents like that in her universe, where someone had ended up invisible and intangible to everyone else. And she said she'd even used the device to once deliberately put a room out of phase during an attack. But in each case the people or the room had been there already and then been moved out of phase. They'd disappeared; they hadn't appeared out of nowhere like a ghost.
"Right. So now I can see dead people." Rodney felt ridiculous even saying the words out loud, though he couldn't explain the jolt of sadness that this man who couldn't see, hear or feel him might be dead. "There are no such things as ghosts." Rodney ran his fingers through his hair, far more frustrated now than curious or even afraid. Was this a hallucination? The stranger certainly embodied how Rodney had been feeling before he appeared, though Rodney was privately certain that his hallucinations would be more interesting if he were to actually have one. So far almost all the guy had done was to stare at the floor. Was it some kind of practical joke? The Czech was probably smart enough to come up with something like this, though it didn't seem his style. Then again, if he had help…
Rodney turned his head, looking back at the rock lying innocuously on the desk next to his computer.
"Oh, you cancerous bitch," Rodney murmured. Svetlana had been so intent on him taking the damn rock, and then Zelenka had gone and made it a point of pride when Rodney had been less than enthusiastic about it. They were probably together right now, watching him on a screen somewhere and sniggering.
"You think this is funny, eh?" Rodney snarled, dismayed at how hurt he felt. Had they really been aware of how lonely he was? Was that why they'd done this?
He marched back to his desk, snatched up the stone and whirled with it raised in his hand, planning on throwing it as hard as he could across the room, hoping it would break.
Except that as soon as he turned away from the desk, the stranger's head shot up and he was suddenly looking right at him.
The man's eyes snapped wide and he leapt to his feet. He slid the handgun out of its holster with terrifying speed and pointed it directly at Rodney.
"Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my quarters?" the man barked.
He was astonishingly handsome, Rodney noted with the part of his brain not actively gibbering in fear. The stranger had an oval face and nicely pointed chin, with high cheekbones and a lush mouth. He had deep shadows under his eyes and could have really used a shave, but neither of those things ruined the overall effect, which was this side of breathtaking. Or maybe that was the gun pointed unerringly at the center of Rodney's chest.
"This really isn't funny anymore, Svetlana!" Rodney tried to project his voice manfully, but it came out as more of a croak.
The man looked confused for less than a second and then deliberately adjusted his stance. "Answer the damn question!" His eyes darted to the rock still clutched in Rodney's hand, and his eyes widened fractionally again. "Where'd you get that?"
"What?" Rodney asked, bewildered and frightened. "The rock?" He started lowering his hand to look at the artifact in it, but the stranger took a single step forward and Rodney stopped dead.
"Drop it!" the man shouted. "Drop it now!"
Rodney dropped the rock. It bounced off the padding of his desk chair and thunked onto the concrete floor.
The man disappeared.
"I swear by all I hold holy," Zelenka said, "that I have not committed any jokes upon you, practical or otherwise." He pulled off his glasses to rub tiredly at one milky blue eye. "Can I go back to my quarters to sleep now, please?"
"So you're really insisting that you had nothing to do with what just happened?" Rodney said. He crossed his arms and scowled for good measure, though Zelenka seemed as unaffected as always.
"Yes I am," Zelenka sighed. "Though it might be helpful if you could tell me what actually happened that you found so distressing that you were compelled to wake me up in the middle of the night with false accusations."
"It's not the middle of the night." Rodney rolled his eyes, though he had to admit it was somewhat later than he'd anticipated when he glanced at his watch. "And if I told you, you'd just claim that you had nothing to do with it, wouldn't you? And then you'd have a nice, jolly laugh with Svetlana at my expense!"
"I did have nothing to do with it!" Zelenka snapped.
Rodney glared. "If that's true, why was Svetlana so keen on me taking the rock, huh?"
Zelenka blinked at him. "What rock?" His gaze followed Rodney's when Rodney's eyes inadvertently strayed to the object in question. "You mean that rock? Why is it on the floor?" He went over to it, looked at it, then curiously at Rodney. "Does it actually do something?" He bent to pick it up.
"No!" Rodney all but vaulted across the room to slap his hand around Zelenka's arm. "No. Don't touch it."
Zelenka straightened slowly, looking at Rodney as if he couldn't decide if it was his colleague or the stone that was more dangerous. "What's wrong with it?"
Rodney opened his mouth to blurt out everything that had just happened but abruptly closed it again. "You really don't know, do you?"
"As I have already told you," Zelenka said, glowering. "For the last time, Rodney, what happened and why do you insist it was my fault?"
Rodney stared at him. "Nothing," he said abruptly. "Nothing happened. I guess I must've fallen asleep at my desk and had a bad dream. Yes, that has to be it." He made a tiny, squeaking laugh that sounded horridly fake even to his own ears. "I had a nightmare and thought you had tried to pull a practical joke on me. Um, sorry."
Zelenka stared at him. "You wake me up to accuse me of making you butt of a joke I don't even know about, and now you say that it was a dream?" He shook his head, speaking in angry Czech. "It is you making me butt of your joke now, isn't it?" he demanded.
Rodney winced. "Fooled you!" he laughed weakly. "Sorry," he said again when Zelenka's glare didn't diminish.
Whatever Zelenka snarled in Czech sounded enough like Russian that Rodney knew how badly he was being insulted. "I can see why the SGC exiled you." He scooped up the stone before Rodney could do more than squawk in dismay, smacked it onto the desk and then stalked to the door.
"Oh, like you asked to be here!" Rodney said, stung.
"Yes I did!" Zelenka said. He slammed the door shut behind him.
"I'm sure," Rodney murmured to himself, but he was looking around fearfully, expecting either the same stranger or someone new and equally terrifying to show up in his room. He wasn't sure if he was more relieved or disappointed when nobody did.
Rodney eyed the stone, then steeled himself and put his palm on it, but nothing happened. He lifted the stone up, looking around again, but he was still alone. "So why did you come here?" he asked, holding the stone closer to his eyes. He groped for his glasses without looking, snagged and then slid them back on, but there was no new information in the intricately curving lines. "Is this some kind of communication device?" It seemed wasteful to do it like that, but on the other hand Rodney had suffered through enough teleconferences to see the benefit of actually having everyone in the same room. But that didn't explain why the stone seemed to have grabbed someone at random.
Rodney thought about that and then blinked, snapping his fingers. "The ATA gene!" Svetlana had told him she'd given it to Ivanovna to see if it activated. Ivanovna was the only person with the ATA gene on the station, so it was possible that the stone grabbed the nearest person or people to the one who initialized it with the right gene. "That's stupid though," Rodney said, still thinking. "What if you don't want to talk to the nearest person with the gene?" Or what if there were, say, a million gene carriers all within the same radius? Unless the stone only conjured one at a time? And what would be the point if they were intangible and unaware of you unless you were actually holding the stone? Now Rodney almost regretted that he hadn't been able to find out if the stranger had become tangible when Rodney had grabbed his stone from the desk. Then again, Rodney was really glad he didn't know if those were tangible bullets.
And where was the man from, anyway?
The man's uniform definitely wasn't the same as the ugly camouflage the glowering soldiers wore around the base, though by far the more astonishing thing was that he spoke English. North American English, though Rodney wasn't good enough with accents to know what region he might have been from. But what would a North American in a strange military uniform be doing appearing in Rodney's room in a research station in the buttfuck middle of the Siberian nowhere?
Rodney lifted the stone closer to his eyes, trying to see any clue to what had happened in the minute lines. Of course it looked exactly the same, but it wasn't. It was a mystery now, a vital piece of an amazing puzzle for him to solve. He just needed to figure out how.
He regretfully put the stone back on his desk, thinking that he really needed some sleep if he was going to work this out. Besides, maybe it needed prolonged physical contact to function properly, since Zelenka had touched it and the artifact hadn't done anything. Rodney nodded to himself. Yes, that made sense, as much as any of this did. He'd put it in his pocket again in the morning.
For the first time in longer than Rodney cared to think about, he went to sleep actually excited about what the next day might bring.
"Okay…," John said slowly, lowering his gun, "what the fuck just happened?"
On sudden impulse he re–holstered his M9 then snatched up the worry stone from his night table, half expecting it to be glowing or hot. He wasn't sure if he was more disappointed or more relieved to find nothing but the same familiar rough/smooth texture under his hand.
The man who had appeared in his quarters and disappeared just as suddenly was holding the same stone. After carrying his around for nearly three years, there was no way John wouldn't recognize it. The guy was holding the same stone, and then vanished as soon as he dropped it.
"So," John started, but he didn't have the first clue where he could go with that thought. He ran his fingers through his hair, feeling the same grit and dried sweat of the day. His room was the same. The stone was exactly the same. The only thing that had changed was the stranger who had blinked in and out like a moment of a dream.
He was pretty sure he'd never seen the guy before in his life, except that there was something about his face that was vaguely familiar, something in the eyes or the tilt of his head that John almost recognized, but didn't know from where. And what the hell that meant, John had no idea. If it meant anything at all.
Good–looking guy, too, John thought absently as he traced the carved lines with his thumb. Not all that handsome at first glance, but he had strong features and pretty amazing blue eyes, with an intriguing tilt to his mouth. Crazily, John wished he could have seen him smile. And he'd had the kind of broad shoulders and big, solid chest that John really liked. If he hadn't been so certain he was awake, John could've convinced himself he'd just dreamed up some appealing stranger because he didn't have anyone—
Naw. It was just that he hadn't been laid in so long. John was too damn busy to be lonely.
He looked at the stone again, then clasped it tightly in his hand and closed his eyes. "On," he said quietly, trying to put his will into it. "Switch on. On. On!" It was the same thing he did with the unknown Ancient artifacts the scientists handed him when he wasn't too busy trying to keep them all alive. But the stone stayed exactly the same as it had since the day John found it. It didn't even tingle again. John opened his eyes and looked around the room, but there was no one there, just like he knew there wouldn't be.
He put the stone down on his night table, put his hands on his hips and glared down at it as if he could bully it into making sense of what just happened. The stone didn't do anything. That's why John had kept it. It was just a pretty rock.
"Except that guy had one too," John said out loud. He picked up the stone again and moved away from his bed, watching the space in front of it expectantly. But a minute later there was still no one there. John sighed, giving up. He put it back down on the night table.
"Fuck." He carded his fingers through his hair again. "Great. Maybe I'm hallucinating." He was under enough stress and so perpetually exhausted that he figured it was a possibility, especially given the total shitfest of the last couple days. The Orcs had finally gotten their ugly grey heads out of their asses and found them. Simmons had done her best to keep the shields working with the two dying Zero–Point Batteries, but in the end it hadn't been enough. Elizabeth had ordered John to fly the city into hyperspace, in the last, desperate hope that there might be another planet somewhere in the galaxy that the Orcs didn't already know about.
They'd made it, barely. They were down to less than 20 percent of shields after they came out of hyperspace, and limped into New Lantea's atmosphere with pretty much no protection at all. The base of the city was burning by the time they hit the water. Most of Atlantis survived the landing, but not everyone. Sue Simmons hadn't.
Stress, and grief, and guilt. Yeah, maybe he was hallucinating.
"Way to go, John! Can't even keep your shit together," he snarled wearily at himself. He didn't feel crazy, but then again he didn't feel much of anything anymore. And John didn't want to poke at that too hard because he had a bad feeling if he did he'd lose it for real and they couldn't afford it.
"Fuck it." He'd bring the fucking rock to the scientists in the morning. Maybe Simmons could—
"Damn," John whispered. Kavanagh was Head of Science now. Zelenka and Simmons had both hated his guts and John hadn't liked him much either, but there was no one else left. John really wasn't in the mood to be sneered at and told what he already knew: that the stone didn't do anything.
He probably just needed some sleep. He'd be fine in the morning.
So in the morning John put the stone in his pocket the way he always did, and if he glanced around every once in a while as if he were looking for someone, it was easy enough to pretend he was just making sure no Orcs had managed to infiltrate the city. Everyone was still on edge anyway.
"Please, stop. I beg you. Svetlana is not going to jump out from under the table shouting, 'boo!'"
"I know that," Rodney said hotly, hoping it covered his embarrassment. He turned his attention back to his laptop. "I'm just looking around. I'm allowed to do that, aren't I? Or are we robotniks required to keep our eyes on our computer screens at all times now?"
Zelenka rolled his eyes. "And here I thought you had still not learned any Russian." He sighed and shook his head, adjusting his glasses on his nose. "It is just that your ceaseless examination of the immediate area is making me nervous. It is as if you expect another Ori attack and have decided not to tell me."
"Believe me, if the Ori attack Earth again, we'll all be the last to know," Rodney snorted.
"Ah, how I wish you were joking," Zelenka said, and Rodney could only nod in miserable agreement. There had been no new emails that morning either, despite the time difference. Maybe the SGC really didn't want him back.
"I thought you asked to come here," Rodney said. He tried to surreptitiously glance around again, but there was no sign of any tall, dark and astonishingly handsome male strangers popping out of the utilitarian concrete walls. Not that Rodney had really thought there would be, despite how he'd put the stone in his right front pocket when he dressed that morning, and it was now late afternoon.
"I did," Zelenka said. He sighed morosely. "But that does not mean I turned down a plethora of other options." He pushed his glasses further up his nose, making Rodney feel like he had to do the same. "America is very select with countries it will allow to participate in Stargate program." He looked at Rodney accusingly.
"Hey, I'm Canadian, remember? Totally different country? Do you really think I'd be out in the frozen ass–end of nowhere if I could work for my own government?" The States paid way better, actually, but it still felt good to be able to put on the affronted indignation.
"Sorry." Zelenka shrugged. He huffed out air at his keyboard. "The light in here is terrible. Have you succeeded in minimizing Merlin device yet?"
"Yes it is," Rodney agreed, "and no, I haven't," he said loudly, because just then one of the less friendly of the scary Russian Special Forces people was walking past the doorway to their tiny, cramped and dusty lab. The guard glared at them for good measure before continuing on. The Spetsnaz were ostensibly there to protect the scientists, but Rodney didn't think anyone really believed that. At least when the Americans didn't want you to leave they were generally more blatant about it.
Once he was certain they were alone, Rodney started the program he'd written that created a noise inaudible to humans that nonetheless prevented the four bugs he knew were in the room from picking up anything. "It's coming along," he said very quietly to Zelenka. "I've almost figured out how to make a Personal Phase Module."
"A PPM?" Zelenka asked, blinking slowly. "I'm not sure you should be allowed to name things."
"Keep your voice down," Rodney hissed. "Do you want the arctic gorilla out there to hear us?"
Zelenka rolled his eyes. "I don't understand your insistence on all this cloak–and–dagger, Rodney. Russia has open agreement with America to trade information. Even if you keep your device a secret until you're recalled to the US—if you are recalled to the US—they will simply turn around and give the design back to the Russians again."
"You really can't be telling me you believe that," Rodney said. "You were born in Prague, for Christ's sake. You know what totalitarian regimes are like. The US has barely given Russia a tenth… No, barely a fiftieth of what they've discovered from the Stargate program, and Russia knows it. Why do you think the Russian team keeps stealing stuff? Kleptomania? No way are the Russians going to share anything of what we build here." Rodney shook his head. "At best they'll use it for leverage to get more access." He shrugged. "At worst, they'll just keep it for themselves."
Zelenka stared at him. Then he sighed and took his glasses off and rubbed his thumb up and down on the side of his nose. "Five years ago we found out in the most terrible way imaginable that we are not alone in the universe. Last year Earth was nearly destroyed." He looked at Rodney with eyes that seemed very large without his glasses framing them. "I want, I must believe that something good will come out of these things. That we will finally be willing to trust each other." He smiled wistfully. "There is a Russian saying: 'Friends meet in times of disaster'."
Rodney snorted. "And here's an English one: 'no good deed goes unpunished'. I'm sorry, Zelenka," he said more kindly. "That's a nice sentiment. It really is. But if you actually believed it you would've told Svetlana when I started jamming the bugs in the room, instead of going along with it. Not to mention that if everything between Russia and the US was as friendly as you want it to be, there wouldn't be bugs in the first place, right?"
Zelenka nodded reluctantly. "Yes, I suppose you are right." He heaved out another sigh, this one heavy and sad. "So then, what will you do with the device when it is truly finished? Email the specs to the SGC with the unbreakable encryption program I know you have? Or give it to Canada?"
"Neither," Rodney sniffed. "If the US wants it, they'll have to get me out of this place."
"Good plan," Zelenka said.
"Of course it is. It's mine," Rodney said. Zelenka still looked sad, which made Rodney feel guilty for some reason. "Hey. You know, there's no reason why I couldn't ask them to take you too, eh? You're reasonably competent."
"I am overcome with the depth of your praise," Zelenka said. Then, "Rodney? Are you even listening?"
"No," Rodney said. He was staring at the tall, black–haired man in the military uniform, who had suddenly appeared on the far side of the room in front of the whiteboards tacked haphazardly to the wall. And the man was staring back, as if he could see him. "Zelenka?" Rodney began slowly, licking his lips, "Can you see anything over there?"
Zelenka blinked owlishly. "Where?" He turned to squint at the whiteboards, then put his glasses back on and squinted again. "I can see your terrible handwriting. Why?" He looked at Rodney. "Is there something there?"
"No. Absolutely nothing at all." Rodney slid carefully off his stool, never taking his eyes off the other man, and shut off the noise–cancelling program. "I must be tired. I think I'll get some more coffee," he said loudly. In front of the whiteboards, the man Zelenka couldn't see gave Rodney a single, barely–perceptible nod. Rodney wondered where he was, how many other people might be with him.
"Good idea. Perhaps you will be less crazy when you return." Zelenka shook his head and went back to his computer.
"Great!" Rodney said even more loudly. "I'm going now." He deliberately turned and started walking, going much more slowly than his usual frenetic pace to make sure the stranger could catch up to him. He could hear the man's footsteps as he jogged to Rodney's side, but when Rodney glanced back at Zelenka it was obvious that he hadn't seen or heard anything.
Rodney gave the Spetsnaz lummox looming at the end of the corridor a tiny smile and wave. "Just going for coffee!"
The guard responded with stony, disproving silence.
"Fuck you too, Comrade," Rodney muttered, only to startle when he heard a snort of laughter. He looked to the side and saw tall, dark and intermittent smirking before his expression fell into the same smooth, cool lines.
It felt very bizarre to Rodney to pass other scientists and military personnel as he ducked down different hallways and see how none of them had the remotest idea that another person was walking right next to him. Not even when he creepily walked right through them. It was as if the man next to Rodney had no idea there was anyone else with them, either. Like Rodney had his own personal ghost, attached to him but to nothing else in the world.
They went past the damp, unpleasantly crowded room that was the cafeteria and instead Rodney hurried them down yet another hallway and finally into a room that he needed his plastic ID pass to open. This room had nothing in it except a scratched and dented metal lab table with rust stains on it and one rickety stool. It smelled of chemicals and mildew. He made sure to close and lock the door.
"Okay," he said, rubbing his hands together. He smiled but was unpleasantly certain it just came out as a grimace. "No one uses this room because there's a leaky pipe in the ceiling that occasionally drips enough water to seriously damage equipment. And there aren't any recording devices, so we don't have to worry about that." Rodney knew about the lack of recording devices because this was the room Svetlana dragged him to when she wanted a quick fuck and going to her room would take too long. Not that Rodney was going to mention that part, though he was nervous enough that he had to bite his tongue so he wouldn't let it rush out on a wave of random babbling. "So, uh, who are you and what are you doing here?"
In response, the man pulled his hand out of his pocket and showed Rodney a stone that looked exactly like his. "Actually, I was going to ask you the same question."
"Ah! So it was the artifact!" Rodney said triumphantly, but then the rest of what the stranger said caught up to him and he blinked. "What do you mean? I'm here because this is where I live. I mean," he stammered quickly, "this is where I'm staying. Temporarily. It's a temporary placement."
The man stared at him. "No," he said slowly, "you're the one who just appeared in Atlantis. That's where we are right now. You even led me right to an empty storage room."
"Atlantis?" Rodney said, gaping. "What the hell are you talking about? This is Siberia. I'm in a research facility and you just… blipped into my room last night."
The man's eyebrows shot up like they'd been pining for his hair. "You appeared in my quarters!"
"Okay, wait. Wait, wait." Rodney put his hands up. "So, you're saying that right now, as far as you're concerned we're in a storage room in a place called Atlantis? Is that a ship? Or a base?"
The man shook his head. "You've never heard of the lost city of Atlantis?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Of course I have. Everyone has. There's been, like, movies made about it. Montana Jones and the Lost City." He ignored the astonished "Montana?" and continued, "Crackpots have been claiming that it's real and they know where it is for decades. Wait." He blinked. "Are you actually saying there really is a lost city of Atlantis?"
The man nodded. "It's real. It's a city the size of Manhattan, built by an alien race called the Ancients. The same people who made our rocks."
"I know about the Ancients," Rodney said. "But, they built a city? There's actually a city out there called Atlantis? Where?" He shook his head in wonder. "That's unbelievable. Are you serious? Do you know what it would mean for us, if we could find it?"
"Don't!" The man's eyes widened and he looked absolutely horrified, as if Rodney had asked for the coordinates to hell. "Don't find it. It's…" He stopped, then swallowed and scrubbed his hand across his eyes. When he looked up again his expression was hard and bleak as the winter outside. "Believe me. This is the last place you want to know about."
The man shook his head and made a sound like a laugh with a scream stabbed through it. "Nothing good." His eyes went distant for a moment, in that empty, horrible way Rodney had seen during and after the Goa'uld attack five years before. He stepped forward, wanting to offer comfort but as usual completely unsure how. He put his hand on the man's shoulder, only for his fingers to pass through him. The man jerked back in surprise, and Rodney yanked his hand away, shocked, and only then remembered that they weren't truly in the same room. "Where are you? Atlantis, I mean. Where is it?"
The man seemed to blink himself back to the present. He took a breath and straightened, visibly throwing off the weight of his memories. "The Pegasus galaxy," he said.
"Wow. Really?" Rodney gaped again. This man's SGC put Rodney's and their tentative baby steps into the Milky Way to shame. "But, if it's so terrible, can't you go back? Or at least get help?"
The man shook his head. "No. They sent troops through the gate in… in 2004. Yeah. Near the end of the first year. And they were going to send another ZPB and more F02s—those are one–man fighters—on a larger ship, but the Perseus was destroyed by the Orcs before it reached us." He shrugged, as if in resignation. "They didn't have enough power to contact us without the ZPB. And we had to preserve our own ZPBs to protect the city, so we couldn't contact them."
"That's terrible," Rodney said. He was sure the ZPBs were ZPMs, but he wondered if the Orcs were anything like the Ori or Goa'uld. Then he realized there was probably no point in asking. "Why didn't they send another ship?"
"They had to build it first," the stranger said. "We had help, with the Perseus, from a bunch of friendly aliens called the Asgard. But they committed mass suicide pretty much right afterwards. Not our fault," he added, as if he knew what Rodney was thinking. "So Earth was entirely on its own to build another one. So it took a while." He smirked miserably. "We didn't even know there was another ship, until we got a transmission from the Daedalus begging for help. It was destroyed trying to bring us new personnel and supplies. Replicators."
"Killer robots," the man clarified. "They were a few days out when it happened. We had no way to get to them. That was two years ago." He shrugged again. "We haven't heard anything since then. We figure either Earth got decimated by Replicators or they just cut their losses."
Landry would do that, Rodney was certain. He'd be sad and regretful, but he'd do it. Rodney wondered if this person's SGC was that callous as well. "I, um, I'm sure they wouldn't do that."
"Doesn't really matter," the man said. "We're almost out of power, and it's just a question of time before the Orcs find us. We'll probably have to evacuate in a few days, few weeks at most."
"I'm sorry," Rodney said. "I wish there was something I could do." He really did, which was so unlike how he'd felt about almost anything or anyone since the Landry administration began that it was startling.
The smirk his words got in return seemed at least slightly genuine, which Rodney supposed was good. "Me too, believe me." The man carded a hand through his thick, very messy hair. "Well, this has been an interesting conversation, so there you go. You did do something." He glanced at his watch and winced. "I gotta go in a minute. There's a meeting." He lifted the artifact again, still in his other palm. "How do you think this thing works, anyway? Do you think we could use it to contact our Earth?"
"I wish I had the first clue," Rodney said. "My only hypothesis right now is that it needs prolonged close proximity to work. And maybe that prolonged contact on each side is required to form a particular connection. Hang on." He reached into his lab coat and grabbed his stone.
And he was suddenly standing in a room made of what looked like dark silver and light copper, with strange yet lovely designs on the walls and tubes carrying bubbling green liquid. "Jesus Fucking Christ!" He dropped the stone back into his pocket.
The room and the man disappeared.
"Damn it!" John gripped his stone so tightly that it hurt his hand, willing the scientist or lab tech or whatever he was to come back. But once again, no matter how hard he concentrated, nothing happened. "Fuck!" Part of him wanted to whip the stone across the room, but there was no way he'd risk breaking it.
If it wasn't already broken. That was the second time they'd suddenly lost the connection for something as stupid as letting the stone go. If it was some kind of communication device, how the hell had the Ancients expected to use it if the instant you picked it up you risked losing contact? And what had startled the guy like that, anyway?
"Fuck," John said again. He slid the useless piece of rock back into his pocket. He hadn't even managed to get the guy's name. "Or give him mine," he muttered, disgusted with himself. All he'd managed to do was blab out his sob story, like the guy would care. The only thing they'd managed to figure out about the stones was that apparently you had to have them on you for a few hours before they'd work, which John had already guessed. And now the connection was broken and it was going to take God knew how long before John could try again.
"Damn." John took a breath and went back out into the corridor, heading towards the conference room. The meeting promised to be the icing on a shit–tastic day that had started with a memorial service, then continued with him coordinating clearing out the rubble and starting repairs. And all the while he was trying to figure out how the hell they were going to stretch their defenses when they had almost none, and what they were going to use for long–range weapons when they had none at all. He'd used up the 12 drones the city had in the last attack, and without them that was it. They were done.
Evacuation was their only option and everyone knew it, but no one was ready to give the city up. Atlantis had been the great, shining star of discovery for Earth, and the last, great hope to defend against the threat of the Goa'uld, or the Ori, or the Replicators—If there was even an Earth left to defend. And if they evacuated, that would pretty much guarantee they'd never find out.
And if the Orcs decided to hunt them down, they'd have no recourse except to hide. And the Orcs owned the whole fucking galaxy; the expedition would be found eventually, no matter where they tried to run. John was pretty sure the Satedan Empire would take them in, but he wouldn't risk bringing the wrath of the Orcs down on Ronon and Teyla's people like that.
John didn't miss Earth, but he hated not knowing if his planet even existed anymore. And God, he wanted to feel safe, just for a few fucking minutes. He wanted to be able to sleep for more than three or four hours a night, without nightmares or jerking awake at the slightest sound. He couldn't remember the last time he had a meal that was warm and wasn't wolfed down in a few spare seconds, or the last time he'd a long shower. He couldn't remember a time when his hands weren't constantly shaking. The adrenaline was going to kill him, if nothing else did.
He wanted to be able to give their dead a proper, decent memorial. But they didn't have time. They never had time.
John nodded at a civilian when he got out of the transporter, but couldn't quite get up the energy to smile. The first time he'd laughed in God, what? A month? Had been when the scientist from the alternate universe insulted someone John couldn't see.
John hated how pathetic it sounded even in his own head, but he hadn't been lying about the conversation. It'd been nice, even if he spent all of it blubbering. It'd been… cool, to meet someone new, who obviously wasn't a threat. Someone who didn't have the same pinched look of desperation that everyone on Atlantis did. John had no idea if the stupid rock was going to prove useful for anything other than Skyping with one guy from another dimension, but John was honest enough to admit he didn't care. It was the one good thing he had to look forward to.
He kept his hand curled around the stone in his pocket as he walked to the meeting.
"Zelenka, I need everything we have on charging ZPMs," Rodney said as soon as he sat down at the lab table.
Zelenka blinked at him, then pointedly looked at Rodney's laptop screen. "You don't have to shout."
"I'm not shouting," Rodney said. He shook his head, hoping that the Czech got the point that he wasn't going to turn the program on. "It's not like I mind if you actually hear me for once." He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt, then put them next to his computer to let his nose rest for a while. He made sure the guard wasn't paying attention, then tapped his watch and arched his eyebrows.
Radek shrugged, then nodded and gave Rodney a small smile. Rodney nodded in return, pleased that his partner in crime understood what he'd meant: that having the program on too often would make the Russians suspicious. "What do you need that information for? Did you find something useful?"
Rodney shook his head. "Nothing new, unfortunately. Because we only get the dregs from the Arctic outpost. But despite the constant sabotage on part of our comrades, I think I might have an idea on how to recharge the ZPMs at Area 51." It was true, he did, but now he actually had an incentive to pursue it. He hadn't wanted to give Landry more power to terrorize Americans or anyone else on behalf of whatever tyrannical government requested it. But the messy–haired stranger who looked like he was carrying the weight of an entire galaxy needed it too, and that made it worth it.
Rodney didn't want to examine that sudden streak of altruism too much, and especially not how that for this almost perfect stranger he was willing to give Landry and the Russians the information too.
On the other hand, he could always pretend his idea didn't work. He'd gotten pretty good at that lately.
"That will be very helpful, if the Ori decide to attack again," Zelenka said, but the way he was looking at Rodney made it obvious that he was almost as confused at Rodney's request as Rodney himself was to give it.
"Yes, absolutely." Rodney nodded vigorously. That was also true, after all. "So, hand it over, then." He put his hand out. "Chop, chop."
Zelenka rolled his eyes, but dutifully held out the memory card from his laptop. "These are all the notes I made from the information from the Antarctic outpost. You may use them but—" Rodney grabbed for it but Zelenka jerked it out of his reach. "Ah! As I am saying, you may use it, but, what you figure out you share as well, yes?"
He held it out again and Rodney swiped it. "Yes, I'll share," he said grudgingly. He plugged the card into his laptop and quickly encrypted everything on it.
"Excellent. And in the spirit of sharing, you can bring me coffee." Zelenka just smiled innocently at Rodney when Rodney glared at him.
"Oh, fine, I'll bring you some," Rodney groused. "But only because I want some too."
"You already had some. You will poison yourself with how much you drink," Zelenka said, but he was absorbed in his own work and barely paying attention. "Remember I take mine with only sugar. And bring back food too. It's past lunch time."
"Yes, fine, whatever," Rodney said. He was able to keep the wince off his face until he was out of sight of the Spetsnaz. He'd completely forgotten the excuse he'd given when he went to speak to the soldier from the alternate universe. He needed to be more careful. If Svetlana got wind of the fact that the artifact worked, she'd be more than happy to take it away from him. And if she did that, then Rodney would never see the soldier again.
He hadn't even gotten his name.
Rodney made sure the corridor was empty and then surreptitiously reached into his coat pocket and touched the stone. But no gorgeous, messy–haired stranger had suddenly materialized when he looked around. Rodney sighed and let it go again.
For a moment there, back in the abandoned lab, he'd actually been in Atlantis, he was sure of it. It happened when they were both touching the stones at the same time. And if he hadn't been an idiot and dropped the stone, what else would've happened? Now that he thought about it, he was almost certain he'd heard the water bubbling in the tubes. Was he really physically in that room? Or had he just gotten a more immersive illusion?
If he'd touched the soldier, would his hand have still gone through?
Rodney had a sudden image of him pushing his fingers through that lush, black hair, or tracing the seam of that astonishingly sensual mouth with his tongue. It'd been a long time since Rodney had been with a man. With someone as smart, beautiful and vivacious as Svetlana as his frenemy with benefits, he'd barely thought about it, let alone missed it. Not until this stranger had appeared out of nowhere right in his room.
No, not out of nowhere; out of Atlantis. And now, instead of even trying for leverage, Rodney was going to use his and Zelenka's research on behalf of a city he'd glimpsed for less than a second. Because of someone he'd barely met.
The craziest part was: sure, Rodney was attracted to him, but that wasn't why he was doing this. Rodney knew that kind of fear, despair and desperation. He'd lived through it when Anubis attacked. He didn't want this man to have to keep living through it too.
It was something Sam would do, Rodney realized, and probably for the very same reasons. He was sure she would've helped this stranger as well. Maybe she would've been proud of him for wanting to.
It was a nice thought, and Rodney was smiling by the time he entered the cafeteria to grab a scuffed tray and two battered metal cups of coffee. The nice–looking young soldier serving the food even asked him if he'd received good news from home.
"Not yet," Rodney said automatically, and then realized that he hadn't checked his email all day and he hadn't even noticed.
"Oh, Thank God," the blue–eyed scientist said. His mouth seemed more downturned than John remembered. "I thought that you'd broken the stone or lost it or something." He tilted his head a little, blinking behind his eyeglasses. "You look awful."
"Gee, thanks," John said. He was slumped against the wall in the same storage room as last time, so tired that everything was blurring a little around the edges. He wasn't entirely certain that he wasn't asleep and dreaming this right now. He rubbed an eye socket with the heel of his hand. "Not that it's not great to see you, but I'm a little busy right now. So…"
"No, really," the guy went on as if John hadn't spoken. "Have you even changed your shirt since the last time I saw you?" His eyes went huge. "Oh, my God! Are you under attack?"
"No," John said. "Sinking. Your eyes are like flying." He nodded to himself. They made him think of that same kind of pristine blue, when there was nothing above him but sunlight.
"What? Hey, hey, are you tracking?"
John swiped irritably at the snapping fingers in front of his face, but of course his hand just went through them. "Yeah, I'm here."
"Good. That's good," the scientist said, though he still looked unhappy. "What do you mean, 'sinking'?"
"We had a little problem with the city's stability from when we crash–landed," John said. It was exhausting just to talk about it. "Lorne and I've been in the chair for… Two days, I think." He shook his head. "Maybe more. I can't remember. We're trying to keep Atlantis from sinking." He checked his watch, but the numbers were swimming too much for him to actually read it. "My next shift's in half an hour." At least he thought it was in half an hour. He couldn't remember what Elizabeth had told him. "I was getting coffee."
Those beautiful eyes widened again. "Crash… You mean, the city can fly? Atlantis is a flying city? And now it's sinking? How can—" He stopped himself mid–sentence and shook his head sharply. "Never mind. This is why I wanted to see you. This will help." He fished out something from his pants pocket and thrust it at John. "Here."
"What is it?" John automatically reached for it, but his fingers closed on nothing. He blinked at it, then at the guy. His brain felt like gravel rattling through a funnel.
"Oh! Oh, right. Um." The guy reached into his lab coat pocket, but hesitated. "You're holding your stone, right?"
John had to check what his left hand was doing, but he nodded.
"Great." The guy took a breath, then picked up his stone. "Oh, oh wow," he said a second later, looking around the room. "Oh my God." He looked at John again, beaming. He had an amazing smile, too. Like his eyes. "I can't believe it. I'm here. I'm right here!"
John stared at him. "You were already here."
"No. No. I mean, yes. I was, but…" The guy hesitated again, then held out the memory card. "See if you can take it now."
"Okay," John said. He plucked the memory card from the scientist's hand.
"Oh my God, I really am here," the scientist said. He started looking around again, but he seemed less thrilled now and more worried. "Um, are you still…?"
"Yes, we're still sinking," John said. "That's why I haven't slept in two days." Maybe three. He was still staring at the memory card. "What's in here?"
"Oh! This is really important," the guy said. "I mean, really important. As in, saving everyone's life important. Hey, are you listening? This is life–or–death stuff here!"
"I'm listening," John said dully, and then the scientist startled the hell out of him by grabbing his shoulders. John flinched violently and probably would've taken the guy's head off if he hadn't been so tired it felt like he was moving in slow motion.
"Jesus, why aren't you in the infirmary?" the scientist demanded. He looked even more worried now, which was kind of sweet. He carefully took the memory stick from John's unresisting hand and tucked it into one of his tac vest pockets. "God, I hope you can remember this. The memory stick has instructions on how to recharge a ZPM—ZPB. A ZPB. Do you understand what I'm saying?" He was all but shouting in John's face. "You can recharge your ZPBs with that. You can get more power for the city!"
"Okay," John said. He rubbed his eye again. It didn't help. "Look, I gotta…"
"Like hell you're tracking," the guy said. "Come on, look at me." This time he grabbed the sides of John's face to lift his head, and for a crazy, tilting second he thought the scientist was going to kiss him. He almost leaned forward to help, but the guy wouldn't let him move. "Are there any scientists here? Anyone who would know what to do with this information?"
John had to think about it. "Yeah," he said finally. Kavanagh would, if he got his head out of his ass long enough to look at it. Maybe Grodin, if Carson thought he was up to it. "Yeah. Someone."
"Oh, God." The guy looked so upset that John wanted to ask him what was wrong. He let go of John's head finally and checked his watch, then grimaced. "I can't stay much longer or someone will come looking for me." He looked at John, expression stricken. "Promise me you'll take that memory stick to a scientist, all right? It's vitally important."
John nodded. "I promise."
"Good." The guy licked his lips, which John would've happily done for him if he wasn't dead on his feet. "And promise me you'll go to the infirmary, if you even have one. Or, or your quarters or somewhere you can sleep, okay?" His eyes were big and miserable behind his glasses. "Promise me. You can't help anyone like this."
"Sure," John said, which at least seemed to satisfy the other guy a little bit. He figured he could rest until it was his shift again, whenever that was.
"Great, good." The scientist nodded. He stepped back, but he just stood there, looking at John with the same miserable expression. "Use the stone when, when you can, all right? I need… Just let me know you're okay."
"Sure," John said again. "You too."
The scientist flicked him one of the saddest smiles John had ever seen. "I'm sorry I can't stay."
"No problem," John said. He wouldn't want to stay either, if he had the choice.
"Okay." The guy backed up another step. He put his hand with the stone back in his pocket, but didn't let go of it. "Well, I'll talk to you later, then. Um, take care."
"Wait," John said, straightening a little. "What's your name?"
"Oh, right. Right. It's Rodney McKay. Um, Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay."
John grinned. "Nice to meet you, Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay." He patted his chest. "Colonel John Patrick Sheppard. Provisional," he added, because his rank still didn't feel real, since Elizabeth had given it to him.
"It's just Rodney," Rodney said. He smiled. "See you later, John."
John sighed. He let his stone go in his pocket then scrubbed his hands vigorously over his face, trying to rub in some alertness. He needed to bring the memory stick to Kavanagh and make up something plausible about why he even had it so he wouldn't sound like he'd gone completely nuts.
Not that he hadn't gone nuts, necessarily. He just didn't want to sound like it. Everyone was depending on him. If he lost his shit now they were toast. Even more toast. Toastier.
John teetered away from the wall and dragged his ass back out into the corridor. Maybe he could tell Kavanagh he'd found this in Zelenka's stuff, but forgotten to pass it along. He could just play dumb and say it looked like something about ZPBs when he'd opened it. Kavanagh thought John was an idiot anyway; he'd buy it.
It probably wouldn't work. They'd had total shit for luck so far and John couldn't see that changing. But it was worth a shot. Anything was at this point. It was also possible that the scientist—Rodney McKay, and why did that name sound familiar?—had rigged something to destroy what was left of the city as soon as they implemented the instructions. John wasn't actually worried about that, though. Rodney barely knew about Atlantis and didn't know anyone else in the city besides John. He had no reason to hurt them.
Rodney'd had no reason to go out of his way to help, either. John would remember that, even if it didn't work. He hoped he'd get a chance to thank him.
It was pathetically easy to hack into the SGC's computers. Rodney was sure it would've been more difficult if Sam were still alive, but he'd made his career in computer technology, and likening getting past the SGC's firewalls to taking candy from a baby would have been generous. It was more like taking candy from a newborn kitten. Not that Rodney would ever do that, he amended internally. Even if kittens actually liked candy.
He thought he was probably getting a little punchy. It was long past time for him to be asleep, but Rodney hadn't been sleeping well lately anyway so he figured he might as well stay awake. And at least this way he could assuage his curiosity, if nothing else.
Rodney's cat liked candy. Then again, Rodney's cat also liked blueberries and oranges, so maybe she wasn't the best example of a typical feline. Boy did Rodney miss her. At least she was with his executive assistant, likely warm and purring right that second, while Rodney huddled in his orange fleece in his empty quarters and glared blearily at his computer screen about 3000 kilometers away.
He wondered if John liked cats. He seemed more like a dog person, though. Rodney could very easily imagine John tossing a baseball to an ecstatic Labrador for hours on end; the lean flex of his muscles as he drew his arm back to throw.
Rodney sighed and rubbed the middle of his forehead. He hadn't seen John in five days. Actually, five days, twenty hours and fifteen minutes.
Five days and twenty hours, time in which John's alien city in Pegasus might have sank or the ZPMs might have overloaded and blown up, or John could have died a thousand different ways. Or been horribly wounded, or lost the stone.
Rodney shook his head like it would physically toss the thought out, and then keyed in another search term for whatever the SGC had on Atlantis and everything related to it.
Not much, as it turned out. Dr. Jackson had been searching for it at the Antarctic outpost, but was still petitioning the Russians for permission to go back when the Ori nabbed him. He was likely dead now, poor bastard, and whatever real chance they had of finding Atlantis in this universe had likely died with him.
"Wait," Rodney said aloud, hands frozen over the computer keys. "John knows where it is. I could just ask him." Provided he saw John again, which seemed increasingly improbable as time went on.
Five days and twenty hours and twenty–one minutes.
Don't find it, John had warned him. This is the last place you want to know about.
According to Jackson, their Atlantis was in the Pegasus Galaxy just like in John's universe, but he hadn't been able to find it. Maybe if John… Couldn't tell him, then Rodney could take over the search. Maybe he could finagle a way to get to the outpost. Svetlana liked him, in her disdainful way. She might even put in a good word for him, if he promised to tell them where it was first.
"Yeah, right," Rodney said. Svetlana had made it very clear exactly how much she trusted him. "Like I'm ever getting out of here."
He'd started checking his email for a recall to the SGC that morning, when he'd forced himself to accept that he wasn't going to see John again. There'd been nothing, as usual.
Landry didn't want him, the Russians wanted him but didn't trust him, and the one person who had made life in Siberia tolerable was most likely dead on the bottom of an alien ocean. And Rodney was never going home.
He swallowed, then snarled at the computer screen. He thought about erasing all of Jackson's research—fuck them all—but that wasn't fair to Jackson, and he'd be pissed if they ever got him back. Rodney wasn't that much of an asshole.
Instead, he backed out of Jackson's files until he was at the homepage of the SGC's Intranet. He clicked on the search bar and typed "John Patrick Sheppard."
Rodney knew, objectively, that all it meant was that in this universe John Sheppard never joined the SGC. And more power to him. But that didn't ease the dreadful certainty rising like ice water in Rodney's stomach.
He left the SGC completely and hacked into the United States National Armed Forces Database instead, then held his breath when he typed in the name.
John Patrick Sheppard got a hit immediately, which was actually worse.
Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of the United States Air Corps, had died in Afghanistan in 2003, during a mission to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter. He'd been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross of the United States Air Corps and promoted from Major, both posthumously. The Air Corps had wanted to bury him with honors at Arlington, but his family had instead buried him in their own mausoleum. Rodney was sure it was perfectly nice as tombs went, but the idea creeped the hell out of him. At least at Arlington he'd be under the open sky.
Lying in a box six feet underground and not to mention dead and Jesus Rodney needed to get a hold of himself.
Rodney lifted his glasses to thumb the tears out of his eyes, reminding himself fiercely that he'd never met this John Sheppard, no matter how the picture next to the obituary looked almost exactly the same. This John's hair was shorter, and his uniform was different, and Rodney had no business crying when he had no reason to mourn.
But his eyes were still wet when he picked the stone off his desk and clutched it in both his hands.
"Don't be dead, John," he said, as if his words could change anything. "Please. Just, don't be dead, okay? Don't have died on me while I didn't even know."
"John?" But of course John wasn't there when he looked around. There was no one.
"Right," Rodney said softly. It really was long past time for bed anyway. He should probably get some sleep if he wanted to not end up ripping Lubivitch's head off in the morning.
He still put the stupid stone under his shirt anyway. Just in case.
"Rodney. Hey, Rodney."
Someone was shaking him. Rodney rolled over, trying to get away from the annoyance so he could go back to sleep. He was just shaken harder.
"Rodney. Come on, wake up. Wake up!"
Rodney finally snorted and came awake, only to yelp and bolt upright when he realized he wasn't alone.
John stepped back and raised his hands. "Whoa! It's all right—it's just me. It's John."
"John?" Rodney said sleepily. Then, "Oh my God, John!" he slapped at his belly, searching for the stone. He'd dropped it under the collar of his I'm With Genius tee–shirt he'd put on before bed, hoping that keeping the stone in direct contact with his skin might make it easier to connect to John in the morning.
Obviously, he'd been right.
Finding something smooth and the same temperature as his body while he was still fighting off sleep was harder than he'd thought, but he managed to smack the stone against his stomach before it slid out the bottom.
Then he fumbled on the bedside lamp, only to slap his hand over his eyes the second it came on. "Ow. Ow. Damn it." He dropped his hand and squinted at John. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, hello to you too, Rodney. I'm very glad to see you also," John said, grinning at him. He clicked off his flashlight and slid it back into his jacket pocket, though Rodney noted that it took him two tries, because of how badly his hands were shaking.
Rodney completely ignored the sarcasm to scramble off the bed one–handed. "Where the hell have you been?" Fear always made him irritable. "Are you actually here?" He poked John in the stomach with his free hand.
John smacked his hand away, which made him weave alarmingly. "Yes. I'm here. I'm touching the stone. See?" He reached beneath the collar of his tee–shirt, then pulled up his stone, keeping it carefully in his palm. "I wrapped wire around it, so I could put it on my dog tag chain." He slid the stone back under his collar, sounding very proud of himself.
"Oh." Rodney blinked. "That's actually a good idea." He looked at John's face, really noticing it now that he wasn't peering through adrenaline–punctured sleep. He frowned. "You look awful."
It was true. If anything, John looked worse than the last time Rodney had seen him, and then John had looked like death warmed–over. John's eyes were bloodshot, and so shadowed it looked like he'd been beaten, and his appealing stubble had sprouted completely into a somewhat less appealing beard. He was so pale that Rodney touched his forehead without thinking about it, checking for a fever.
John bobbed back, and then probably would have fallen on his ass if Rodney hadn't grabbed for him. Luckily Rodney remembered at the last second not to drop his stone. "Jesus Christ! What's wrong with you?"
John's grin was practically incandescent. "We won," he said. "We won, thanks to you." He paused. "Well, you and the other Daedalus." He thumped his hands clumsily onto Rodney's shoulders. "But, we won! We drove them off!
"Wait, you mean the Orcs? You beat them?" Rodney asked, eyes wide. "You did it? The ZPM—I mean, the ZPB charger—it worked?"
John nodded quickly. "It worked," he said with a kind of sobriety that made him seem drunk. "So when the Orcs found us again, like we knew they would, we had shields. And then, you're not going to believe this, but the Daedalus from an alternate universe jumped in and saved our asses. An alternate universe, Rodney! Can you believe it?" His grin was back. Next to the scruffiness it made him look manic. "It was fucking awesome."
"It worked. Oh, thank God." Rodney sagged as the tension that had been suffocating him for over a week drained away all at once. He put his hand over his eyes, a little embarrassed that he was so close to tears. "I was so worried that it wouldn't. That… that Atlantis would sink, and…"
"Hey. Hey. It's okay, buddy," John said. He put his hand on the back of Rodney's neck and shook him just a little. Rodney looked up. "We'd already evacuated everyone except me, Major Lorne, Dr. Weir—she's the expedition leader—and Kavanagh. Worst case scenario, we would've evacuated too. But we didn't have to, because of you. We even had enough power left over to move the city again." He smirked and it was hard not to grin back. "Kavanagh had a shitfit when I told him you'd given the info to me. He hadn't been able to make heads or tails of what he'd found in the database."
"Kavanagh?" Rodney demanded, face screwing up. "No wonder the city almost sank. Please tell me he's not in charge of anything."
John shrugged, though his grin slid off his lips all at once. "He wasn't the first choice." He looked away, then saw the two framed photographs on Rodney's desk and walked over to them. Rodney didn't miss how John wasn't moving entirely steadily, and how when he got there he leaned a hand on the desk, like he would lose his balance otherwise. He picked up the picture of Annabelle, squinting at the fat brown tabby. "Is this your cat?" He smiled but put it down before Rodney could answer. The picture of Rodney and Sam was larger, and John used both hands, as if he knew he'd drop it if he didn't. Rodney could hear the faint rattle of the glass against the metal as the frame shook with his hands. "You're married?"
"Not anymore," Rodney said. He quietly rescued the picture, then couldn't help the gentle touch he gave Sam's face as he set it down. "We divorced. Amicably, actually. But, ah, she died."
"I'm sorry," John said.
"Thanks," Rodney said.
John gave a small nod, and then blinked to see his own face on the computer screen. "Whoa. That's weird." He leaned a little closer. "My hair's too short." He peered at the screen, obviously trying to read the text that went with his picture. He pulled back and rubbed his eyes.
"It's an obituary," Rodney said. He couldn't shake the sadness of it, even with the very much alive version of John right there in the room. The idea of this vibrant, compelling soul being snuffed out anywhere was terrible.
"Yeah, I figured." John sounded far more resigned than upset. He ran his fingers through his dirty hair. "You too, actually. Have an obituary, I mean. I mean, you're dead, in my universe." He looked at Rodney. "I remembered where I knew you from."
Rodney gaped. "I'm dead?"
John nodded. "Yeah. We met once, before it happened. I flew you out to the Ancient outpost from McMurdo." He smirked. "For a Canadian, you sure bitched about the cold a lot. But we didn't talk, or anything."
"I was there?" Rodney demanded, amazed. "Did I go to Atlantis? Before I… Um, before I died?"
John shook his head. "It was before we left. Your helicopter got shot down, flying to the outpost. There was a general on board who died as well. It was an accident, some problem with the Ancient tech. I wasn't flying," he added, as if he was worried Rodney might think it was his fault. "You were going to be the head of the science division. That's why I was able to tell Kavanagh the truth about the ZPBs, when I remembered who you were."
"Wow." Rodney swallowed. That hadn't been his life, it would never be his life, and yet it still felt like a gut–punch, knowing he'd been so close to something as astonishing as Atlantis, only to have it stolen from him in the worst way possible. "Well. It's nice to know that I would've been part of the expedition." He managed a smile. "Maybe I would've been able to help."
"You did," John said, very seriously. "We're all alive because of you." He blinked hard, then gave his head a tiny shake. "Right. The Daedalus. I didn't tell you yet. They jumped in from another universe in time to blast the Orc ship firing on us, then jumped out again, and then jumped back in about an hour later. Only the ship was badly damaged and we had to scramble the F02s to protect the crew from the Orc fighters until they could jump again." John rubbed one of his eyes. "I got to talk to another Sheppard for a couple minutes, before they disappeared. He was kind of full of himself."
"It's amazing that he showed up right when you needed him like that," Rodney said.
"Yeah," John said. "Lucky." He took a deep breath and lifted his head. "Like you. You showed up right when I needed you." He blinked. "When we needed you. With the ZPBs." He scrubbed his hands over his face. "Fuck. I'm too tired to think."
"When's the last time you slept?" Rodney asked.
John looked like it took him a long time to understand the question. "After you gave me the memory stick," he said finally. "I think. Something like that. And, uh. Catnaps."
Rodney stared at him, horrified. "'Catnaps'? It's been six days! Oh my God, why aren't you in the infirmary?"
"I'm fine, just tired," John said. "I'll go to sleep, after. But I wanted to make sure you knew that we were all right."
"You're not fine! You can barely stand! Come on." Rodney took John's upper arm, remembering at the last second to only use one hand so he wouldn't drop the stone. He crossed the short distance to his bed, pulling John with him. "Here." He gave John a small shove, and then was a little alarmed at how quickly John all but collapsed onto the mattress.
"My quarters are right here," John said. But he only watched dully as Rodney used one hand to tug off each of his boots. As soon as the first one wasn't touching him or Rodney, it disappeared. "I need that."
"It's back in your universe," Rodney said, hoping he wasn't wrong. The second boot vanished and Rodney climbed painfully to his feet, belatedly realizing that his crotch was now in John's perfect line of sight, with nothing but the thin cotton of his boxers to hide anything. "Um." Rodney stepped back quickly and turned around, looking for his pants before it occurred to him that John had already seen him like this for at least ten minutes.
Rodney's hand was getting sore, though, from holding the stone for so tightly for so long. "Just a sec," he murmured, then made a pleased noise when he spotted his half–used roll of electrician's tape.
He balanced the stone on the inside of his arm, then wrapped the tape around it until it looked like he'd mummified part of his forearm. But now he didn't have to worry about John suddenly disappearing.
When he turned around again, John was still sitting up, but he looked like it was taking every ounce of his will to keep his eyes open. "I need to go back," he said. "The repairs… I have to…"
"You have to not drop dead," Rodney snapped. "Which you will if you don't get some sleep."
"I can’t," John said, though he didn't resist at all when Rodney took his shoulders and gently guided him onto his side. Rodney had to lift John's feet onto the bed for him; it was like John had forgotten they were attached.
"All you have to do is take off the stone when you're ready to go back, all right?" Rodney said. "But you need to sleep, and you might as well do that here, where you're safe."
John made a soft, horrible noise, and Rodney was shocked to see the wetness brimming in his half–open eyes. "Nowhere's safe."
"Oh, no," Rodney breathed, feeling his heart lurch in sympathy. He knelt clumsily next to his bed. "You're safe here. I promise." He hesitated, then started carding his fingers through John's hair, something he vaguely remembered as liking from his childhood. "You're safe," he repeated. "It's all right. Go to sleep."
"Okay," John said, like he'd believed every word. But instead of closing his eyes he reached up with one of his trembling hands and gently brushed two fingers down Rodney's cheek. "Thank you for finding me."
Rodney swallowed. "You weren't lost." He caught John's hand as it fell back to the bed.
"Not lost," John murmured. His eyes finally closed. "Alone."
Rodney had a feeling John normally wouldn't have said anything so personal, and he doubted John would even remember that he had. But all the same, John intertwined his fingers with Rodney's before he finally relaxed into sleep, as if that had been the one thing he was missing.
Rodney didn't let go John's hand for a long time.
The Orcs had found them again, right out in the open while they were walking back from the village to the gate. The Genii were supposed to be allies of the Satedan Empire, but even though they had Cohort Leader Emmagan and Specialist Dex with them, one of the conniving fuckers back at the Genii bunker must've betrayed them, signaled the nearest Orc ship somehow. And now they were in the middle of a field with no cover, and their R90s wouldn't do a damn bit of good against the Orc fighter ships.
"Run! Get to the gate!" John hollered at Ford. He shoved Zelenka at the kid, then fired at the ship above him before running in the opposite direction from the gate, hoping to draw the fighter away and give Ford and Zelenka time to escape.
"We must find cover," Emmagan said. She stopped at aimed at another fighter, but before she could fire the ground rocked with an explosion, throwing both of them off their feet.
No kidding they needed cover, John thought. He heard another blast and scrunched up, covering his head as he was pelted with rocks and dirt.
"Come on!" Dex grabbed his wrist to haul John up, and John only realized he was injured when the ache he'd been ignoring since the blast suddenly burst into bright agony in his stomach, so bad it felt like he was being pulled apart. He screamed and yanked his hand back, trying to curl around the pain. Dex shouted something at Emmagan that John couldn't make out, and then Dex grabbed him again and threw him across his shoulders.
When it had actually happened, John was too out of it to realize that Ford and Zelenka had heard his screaming and come to help instead of going for the gate. Which put them right in the path of the next explosion.
Aiden survived. Radek didn't. But John didn't know. Not until he'd come out of surgery and been coherent enough to ask.
But in the dream, John saw everything. He saw the red bolt stream out of the sky, and Zelenka shove Ford out of the way just before it hit. He saw Ford go flying, and he saw Zelenka as the blast tore his body apart.
And then John woke up in a room he didn't recognize, sitting up in a bed that wasn't his and screaming a warning he'd never been able to give.
"John! John! It's just a nightmare. You're having a nightmare. You're all right! John, can you even hear me?"
Rodney. That was Rodney shaking him, his hands like vises on John's shoulders, hot through his sweat–damp shirt. "John? Are you in there?" Rodney's eyes were ice blue in the indifferent light of the moon, and for a moment John had no idea why the moonlight was slanted wrong and where the hell he was. But he knew Rodney and he could hear him.
John nodded because he was breathing too fast to talk,
"Thank God." Rodney stopped shaking John but he didn't let go. "You were screaming. I thought…" Rodney swallowed. "I thought you were dying!" he said accusingly. "I thought the stones had broken and, and you were succumbing to accelerated entropy or something."
John shook his head. "Nightmare." His voice sounded like a sick crow and he tried to work enough spit into his mouth to swallow.
"Yeah, I figured," Rodney said. He seemed to suddenly realize that he was still gripping John's shoulders and whipped his hands back. His eyes stayed very big. "Are you okay?"
John's heart was still rattling like one of the R90's before the expedition's ammo ran out, but he managed another nod. It was a dream. Just a bad dream; his fucked–up brain making random shit out of what people had told him. They hadn't even met Emmagan when Zelenka died.
"Yeah," he rasped. "Sorry."
His apology seemed to piss Rodney off for some reason, but before John could coordinate enough air and spit to ask why, someone started pounding at the door to Rodney's quarters. Both Rodney and John startled and yelped like little kids, but John leapt out of bed and crouched by the wall, groping for the gun he'd left on his side table in another dimension.
"Rodney! Rodney, are you all right in there? I heard screaming! What's going on?"
"Oh shit," Rodney muttered. He looked at John's stance and his eyes widened again. "Are you all right?"
John nodded distantly though the twin hits of shock and adrenaline. If anything the pounding got louder.
"If you do not open this door, I will get the doctor, Rodney! And you know what she will do to you!"
Rodney winced. "I'm all right, Zelenka," he called to the door. "I'm coming. Just give me a sec, for God's sake!"
John gasped. "Radek?"
But Rodney had scrambled up and over to the door before John could do more than form that single word. And then Rodney yanked it open.
"What in hell is going on?" Radek demanded. He was wearing thick, knit socks and stripy pajamas, with his hair lying crazily around his head and his eyes all squinched up like a mole. He ignored Rodney's stammered excuses and shoved past him into the room, and then stopped dead when he saw John. He exclaimed something violently in Czech and practically threw himself backwards until his back was pressed so hard against the closed door that it looked like he wanted to phase through it. "God in heaven! Who is this?"
John swallowed again, trying to blink the burn out of his eyes. "Hi, Radek."
His voice was a pained whisper, but it still carried in the small room. Both Radek and Rodney stared at him.
"How do you know my name?" Radek demanded.
"You know him?" Rodney asked at the same moment.
John nodded. "I, ah." He had to stop to breathe, knowing his voice would crack otherwise. "We were friends."
Radek turned his stare from John to Rodney. "I've never met him. Rodney, what the hell is happening? Who is this man, and why is he in your bed?"
To John's surprise, Rodney flushed an endearing shade of pink. "It's not what it looks like!"
Radek just stared at him, his expression somewhere between furious and spooked. "I would like to know what else it could be, since it looks like there is a strange American man in your bed who I've never met and yet knows my name." He pulled himself up to his full not–particularly intimidating height and glared at both of them. "You have one minute to tell me what the fuck this is, or I call the Spetsnaz who are no doubt lurking at the far end of the corridor."
Rodney swallowed visibly. "Do you, ah, remember the stone? The one Svetlana gave me?"
"The one you said was a prank?" Radek's eyebrows shot up. "Of course I remember that. What—" He stopped, then turned to look back at John with his mouth still hanging open. He blinked, then snapped it shut. "The stone did this?"
"You always were quick on the uptake," John said.
"Yeah," Rodney said. He nodded, looking guilty. "It, uh, connects other universes. But only if someone on the other side has one too. And I think they need the ATA gene as well."
"What's wrong with your arm?" Radek asked him.
"Huh? Oh." Rodney lifted his taped arm. "Well, that's part—shit!" It was very easy to see how the tape was loose, the stone obviously no longer touching him. "Oh no!" Rodney slapped the empty spot in the tape, but it was clear that the stone wasn't there. He glanced desperately at John, then all but dove to the floor underneath his desk, smacking around the wheels of his chair. "Damn it, damn it, damn it. Fuck! I fell asleep and must've caught it on something! Fuck! Yes!" He made a relieved noise and scrabbled the stone off the floor, then went up on his knees and stared at John like a startled prairie dog, the stone clutched tightly in his hand.
John automatically slapped his hand over his own stone, making certain that it was still around his neck. "It's okay. I'm still here. Completely here, I mean."
"Thank God," Rodney breathed. Then he stopped. "Wait. Wait." He climbed to his feet, staring at John as if he would disappear if Rodney's eyes left him. "Not that I'm not happy, but, why are you still here? I dropped the stone."
"Excuse me, but I am still here, too," Radek said. John grinned at how he sounded peeved instead of angry or afraid. Trust Radek to go for curiosity over everything else. "Can someone please tell me what's going on?"
"So, that's everything," Rodney said about half an hour later. "Except that John should have disappeared as soon as I wasn't in direct contact with my stone, and he didn't."
Rodney was sitting in his desk chair and Radek was cross–legged on his bed. John was pacing, partly out of anxiety and partly in an attempt to keep himself awake. It wasn't working too well. He was slightly less exhausted than he'd been when he'd pretty much passed out in Rodney's bed, but that wasn't saying much. It was around four in the morning and he'd gotten at least five hours of sleep, but even standing up, it felt all but impossible to keep his eyes open. As soon as he stopped moving his eyes slid shut.
"Actually, you're the one who disappears," John said.
"Which means you are saying that it no longer matters if you touch the stone or not, correct?" Radek said to Rodney, ignoring John. "I don't know what is more unsettling: that it is so easy to move back and forth between universes, or that I am dead in this other one."
"I'm moving between just two universes," John murmured. "And maybe not even that anymore. I might be stuck here." Thinking of that helped him wake up a bit, but he was so tired that right then it was hard to be worried about it. He was safe here and Radek and Rodney were alive. Best of all, no one would die if he made the wrong decisions. Or die anyway, even if he made the right ones. He could actually sleep.
Except. This wasn't his universe. He was dead here. And the expedition needed him. He couldn't—he wouldn't—abandon them. It didn't matter what he wanted, not when there were other lives at stake. It had never mattered what he wanted.
He wanted Rodney. But that didn't matter either. He had to go back.
"It doesn't make sense," Rodney said. He glared at the stone in his hand. "It needed both of us to be touching it. The first time I saw John, he didn't even know I was there until I picked up the stone. And then as soon as I dropped it he disappeared. So how could it be on the floor for at least an hour without John even going intangible again, let alone vanishing?"
"And I am meant to know the reason for this, how?" Radek shrugged expansively. "Here." He held out his hand. "Let me see."
Rodney visibly hesitated, which was kind of funny.
"Just let him see the damn stone, McKay," John said. He turned and paced the few steps to the far wall of Rodney's room, wishing the space were larger so he could walk more quickly. The rough concrete kept catching on his socks. "He's worried you're going to squirrel off with it," he said, grinning at Radek. It was only when Radek looked faintly alarmed instead of grinning back that John remembered that this wasn't his Radek; his Radek was dead. "Sorry."
"It's all right," Radek said. He gave Rodney a quick nod when Rodney reluctantly handed the stone to him. "I am just sorry that I am not the Radek you remember."
"S'okay," John said. He crossed back to the first wall and allowed himself to lean against it, locking his knees so he wouldn't slide to the floor. He watched Radek and Rodney muttering over the stone, wondering if he should offer them his. He didn't know that he'd pulled it out from under his collar until he realized it was in his hand.
It could have been like this, he thought. This could have been his life, his Atlantis: Rodney McKay, alive and well with his brusque kindness and ferocious intelligence, leading the scientists the way he was supposed to before he died. And Radek Zelenka, with his humor and patience and brilliance of his own. With both of them working together, maybe the expedition would've found a way to defeat the Orcs as soon as they encountered them. Or at least found a way to beat the Orcs back before so many people died. Maybe, if both Radek and Rodney had been in Atlantis, the city would still be intact and on the same planet where they found it. Maybe they could be real allies to the Satedan Empire, instead of beggars for protection and provisions.
Maybe John wouldn't be so damn alone all the fucking time, when he wasn't trying to keep everyone alive. Weir kept herself aloof from everyone, and John had plenty of subordinates, but no real friends in the military contingent. After all, he wasn't supposed to even be there in the first place. He really liked Ronon and Teyla, but they both had their duties with the Empire and John didn't see them all that much.
And sometimes, John figured that because of his rank and his ATA gene, and because he'd somehow managed to survive a lot of crap that should've killed him, everyone had put him on some fucking pedestal like he was an actual Ancient, instead of just unlucky enough to share DNA with them. Ford was a good kid, but he acted like John walked on water and shielded Atlantis with his mind. It was hard to be pals with someone who could barely look him in the eye half the time.
Radek had been John's friend. They'd played chess and had meals together, watched stupid movies and bitched about work. Radek had never really been comfortable in the field, but he was quick and competent and good under pressure, and he'd loved finding Ancient artifacts or ruins and coaxing them into spilling their secrets.
He'd been a great team member, and just about the only friend John had. John missed him more than he'd thought possible, considering John had never been in love with him. Radek was straight, but he hadn't done it for John anyway. He was a little too nervous, a little too set in his ways and routine. Radek wouldn't've kept using the stone after the first time he'd accidentally contacted John with it, John was certain.
The first time John had seen him, he'd pointed a gun at his face. Rodney had been terrified, and yet he'd kept the stone. Rodney had saved John's life when he'd barely known him. Rodney had let John sleep in his damn bed, and told John he was safe like he'd known that was exactly what John needed to hear. Their whole history together numbered just a few hours, but John already considered Rodney his friend.
And boy, but did Rodney do it for him: broad shoulders, incredible blue eyes and smart as hell. John loved smart. Rodney was undoubtedly straight too, but John hadn't been even slightly interested in someone since Holland was killed in Afghanistan. That was something else Rodney had given him.
I don't want to leave, John thought, shocked with the intensity of it. He didn't want to leave the sense of safety and quiet, of no one needing anything from him when he barely had anything left to give. But Rodney was the biggest reason he wanted to stay.
John cleared his throat. "I think there might be a mental component."
It was kind of funny how Rodney and Radek both snapped their heads to look at him at once.
"What?" Rodney asked. His eyebrows furrowed. "You mean, the ATA gene? Because yes, that's been well–established—"
"Not that." John shook his head. "I mean, I think that what the user wants makes a difference, maybe." He rubbed the back of his head, looking down at the floor. "When I met you, I kind of…" He shrugged. "It was a really bad day." He quirked about half a smile. "And then you appeared. And right now I, um, I don't want to leave."
Rodney blinked. "Oh," he said. "I was pretty miserable, too." He blinked again. "You don't want to leave?"
"No," John said simply. "I know I have to, but…" He scraped the fingers of both hands through his disgusting hair. "But, but we've been fighting a war for nearly five years. A war we've been losing, against an enemy that…" He gave himself a quick shake, forcing his mind away from the memories before he got sucked into another nightmare while he was standing up. "An enemy who wants to wipe us out. Completely. And they've got way more firepower and troops than we do, and tech our allies can't defend against. We've had no contact with Earth in so long that we don't even know if it exists anymore." He made a sound a little too pathetic to be a laugh. "These little trips into your universe have been the first time I could, that I could fucking relax in half a decade." His self–depreciating smirk was even more pathetic than the laugh had been. "So, yeah. I guess I don't want to leave." He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "I didn't know I was such a damn coward."
"What?" Rodney demanded, shrill with sudden anger. "What did you just call yourself?"
Surprised, John dropped his hands. Radek and Rodney were both staring at him. Radek looked upset, but Rodney looked furious. "A coward," John said. "Hey, if the shoe fits." He shrugged, going for a nonchalance that was anything but the way he actually felt. He was so exhausted that he almost threw himself off balance when he lifted his arms.
"I don't think the shoe fits your situation," Radek said.
"Did you seriously just call yourself a coward for wanting to get some actual rest for the first time in five years?" Rodney dropped the stone on the bed and stalked over to him. John noted absently that Rodney's forearm was still wrapped in electrician's tape. Rodney stopped right in front of him, blue eyes flashing like chips of ice. "You were half–dead when you showed up here tonight, and then you woke me up with your screaming. Do you really think anyone wouldn't want to stay somewhere safe after spending five fucking years in a warzone? And you're saying you're a coward for wanting out of that? Are you kidding me? Are you really that stupid?"
"Hey," John said, though he didn't have the energy to dredge up any real annoyance. It felt like he didn't have any energy at all, nothing left but a hollow shell that he had to force to function. "I'm just tired," he said. He rubbed his eyes again, but it felt like he could barely hold up his hands. "I'm so tired. But I have to go back. They need—"
"All right, that's it," Rodney said. He grabbed John's arm. "Help me before he falls over," he ordered Radek. "Shut up," he said mildly to John's barely–there protests as he and Radek all but dragged John back to the bed. "You're stuck here anyway, you might as well take advantage of it while you can. We'll figure out how to fix this in the morning. Now lie down or I swear to God I'll suffocate you with a pillow."
"We will find a way to send you back, John," Radek said. He patted John's shoulder. "But Rodney is right. It is best for everyone if you sleep while you can."
John was sinking and he couldn't stop it, but he still tried to speak. "Your bed. What about you?"
"Don't worry about that." Rodney's shoulder pat was a lot rougher than Radek's had been. "I've survived on way less than five hours of sleep, and I get up in about two hours anyway. I'll be fine.
"Go to sleep, John," Rodney said, and John could've sworn he felt Rodney's fingers carding through his hair.
He didn't remember actually falling asleep, but he woke up what felt like seconds later in the grey light of dawn. He was in his quarters in Atlantis, with his boots on the floor next to the bed. An alarm was blaring. His radio was on his bedside table where he'd left it, crackling with static and someone calling his name. Someone else was banging on his door and yelling for him. They sounded frantic, like they'd been trying to reach him for a long time.
"I hear you are having no luck with making a Personal Phase Module," Lubivitch said, smiling in that way of his that was 10% false sympathy and 90% smug superiority. He made a show of leaning over Rodney's shoulder and then tut–tuting over the computer simulations he was running on the communal terminal in the main lab. "After so long as a businessman, it seems you can't do simple physics anymore, hmm?" Lubivitch let out a deep breath and shook his head. "No wonder the Americans sent you to us." He patted Rodney's shoulder. "I'm sure it's troubling, being so useless. But maybe if you're a good boy they'll let you go home."
Rodney yanked his shoulder out of reach of the arrogant prick's hand, but Lubivitch just laughed and then sauntered back to the Naquadah generators.
"Let me know if you need me to read my notes to you again," Rodney said. He could practically hear Lubivitch stiffening in affront, and smiled to himself as he input a new line of code. This one would result in a simulation that would take him closer to the result the Russians were expecting without actually achieving it. Rodney hoped the appearance of forward momentum would please them enough that no one would look more closely at his results and realize he was purposely sabotaging himself.
He'd actually sent the blueprints for a prototype to Radek two days ago. Radek was building it in secret. Rodney had promised that he'd use it as a bargaining chip for both of them to get out of this place, even if that meant going back to Canada. Right then, Rodney really couldn't remember why the hell he'd ever thought the US's money was worth leaving for in the first place.
The subterfuge was the real reason Rodney hated working in the main lab, even more than the forced proximity to a man he loathed. Not untypically, there was only one computer terminal on the research station powerful enough to let Rodney do the in–depth simulations he needed. It was still a pitifully poor cousin to even his personal work computers back in New York, but it was the best thing they had here, and even his customized laptop couldn't handle everything.
But God, did he hate having to work in the same lab as Lubivitch, knowing that any data he didn't encrypt would be stolen as soon as he saved it on the mainframe. He made sure to leave enough tidbits to convince Svetlana that she had everything of his when she really had nothing of importance. It still grated.
Rodney sighed and rubbed his forehead—a gesture that he was sure made Lubivitch happy, the dick—and then carefully slid his hand into his pants pocket. He held the stone while he took one more surreptitious glance around the lab, using the pretense of adjusting his glasses. But even with direct skin contact, there was nothing there other than the dank, ugly concrete room. No John.
He let out a silent breath and went back to his pretend working. It had been two days now since John had abruptly disappeared from Rodney's bed, and Rodney was terrified that whatever was keeping him in his own universe was just as bad as the attack that had left John nearly delirious with exhaustion.
Or maybe it was something worse than that attack. Maybe it was something even a recharged ZPM couldn't save John's Atlantis from. Rodney had always been good at cycling through worst–case scenarios, and that unfortunate talent had only improved since the improbably–haired Colonel had appeared in his life. Rodney's fantasies about John had long since devolved from imagining him naked and arching in pleasure to imagining him trapped and bleeding, or sick and helpless, or bloodless and dead.
"Why do you keep putting your hand in your pocket?" Lubivitch's voice was perfect mocking curiosity. "Are you playing with yourself?"
"Of course not!" Rodney knew he'd just damned himself by saying it too quickly and then blushing to his ears. He ripped off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt, which just made things worse.
Lubivitch, who had probably been kidding, now burst into incredulous laughter from Rodney inadvertently confirming his suspicions. "Were you really touching yourself?" He was still laughing. Rodney wanted to punch him. "If you're that hard up, I'm sure I could find you someone willing, my friend. Masha Dmitrievna has nice breasts, don't you think?" Lubivitch tapped his chin consideringly. "Though maybe she's too much woman for you. You Americans like them skinny and stupid, right?"
"I'm not American," Rodney said automatically.
Predictably, Lubivitch shrugged. "Ivana Ivanovna, then." He grinned. "I'm sure that if she gets drunk enough she won't mind fucking someone fat and ugly."
Rodney rolled his eyes at the insult. "I guess you'd know, wouldn't you?" He turned back to the computer.
John was standing on the other side of the room.
Rodney managed to smother his gasp before Lubivitch heard it. "You know?" he said, going for a blustering fury he was far too simultaneously anxious and relieved to feel, "I've had enough of your petty insults. I'm going to work in my quarters." He snatched up his laptop and tablet, doing his best to look as huffy as possible as he marched out of the room. He smiled inwardly to hear Lubivitch alternately swearing at him and threatening to get Svetlana if he didn't "come back immediately!" Seemed like the smirky asshole still couldn't quite figure out the Naquadah generators by himself. Ha.
John slid into step with Rodney as if they'd been born to walk together. Rodney didn't want to dwell too much on how right it seemed to have John beside him, because it was just one of the many, many things he knew he couldn't have. John was most likely straight—how could he not be, in his universe's version of the Air Corps? And he was just visiting anyway. The best they could hope for was this strange, platonic, not–quite long distance relationship.
Still, Rodney needed a great deal of willpower to only give John a brief nod of acknowledgement, and then not even look at him again until they were in Rodney's room with the door locked behind them.
"What happened? Are you all right?" Rodney asked, in lieu of what he really wanted, which was to grab John by the shoulders and haul him into his arms and kiss him.
John's eyes flickered to Rodney's mouth when Rodney licked his lips. "I'm fine," he said.
It was a blatant lie and Rodney knew that John knew he knew it. The only difference between when Rodney had seen John last was that he looked marginally more rested but twice as dirty, which wasn't exactly a turn off, except for how some of the dirt looked like dried blood.
"What happened?" Rodney asked again, because he was sure John wouldn't tell him otherwise. "You were gone two days! I thought you were dead!"
John chuckled, though it really just sounded weary and sad. "You always think I'm dead. Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"You know what I mean," Rodney snapped. "But seriously, what happened? Where did you go?"
"Nowhere, Rodney," John said on a sigh. He ran his fingers through his hair, then winced at the obvious grit and oil in it. "There was some structural damage from the attack. It took a couple days to take care of it."
"What, like a leaky roof?" Rodney gestured at John's clothing: the rust–red smears on his neck and forearms. "You've got blood all over you!"
"It's not mine," John said. "Chuck, he's one of the military guys. Canadian, actually, like you. Chuck, uh, he got trapped when part of one of the towers collapsed." John rubbed his nose and he left a tiny smear of blood from his hands. "It was kind of a bitch to get him out."
"Will he be all right?"
"Hopefully," John said. "Beckett said he would. Ronon pulled a few favors to get him into the hospital where Melena works. So, that'll help."
"Good. I'm glad," Rodney said. He was, though it was just on John's behalf. He wished he knew who any of those names belonged to, though the people John worked with was the last thing Rodney wanted to talk about.
What he really wanted was to get rid of the awful despair on John's face. It was no less disturbing than the crippling exhaustion had been. "What is it, John?" Rodney asked. He took a risk and put his hand on John's arm, uncertain if his fingers would pass through, or if John would want the touch even if they didn't.
John didn't react, which was only marginally better than if he'd pulled away. "We can't do this anymore, Rodney," he said.
Rodney whipped his hand back like he'd been burned. "What?" he said, hurt. "Do what? What can't we do?"
"This, Rodney," John said. He gestured between them with one bloodstained hand. "I can't keep escaping into your universe. When I got back last time the wall had already collapsed. The Marines were about to use a blowtorch to cut through my door. They'd been trying to get a hold of me for over twenty minutes."
"Well, you couldn't've known that was going to happen, could you?" Rodney said hotly. It felt like his stomach was turning inside out, acid eating up his insides. "It's not your fault that the Orcs damaged Atlantis!"
"I know that. That's not the point." John had the weary patience of someone who'd already made up his mind. It was terrifying because it meant that Rodney couldn't stop this; John was as good as gone. "The point is that people needed me, and I was off fucking around. I can't do that to them."
"I wish we'd been fucking around," Rodney said, too upset to care what John might think of him. "Yes, you were here. But do you remember what you were doing, John? You were asleep," he filled in before John could do more than open his mouth. "Big, exciting whoop. You fell asleep because you were so dead on your feet that you could barely stay upright. How could you being like that in Atlantis have done anyone any good?"
"I would've been there, Rodney," John said. He rubbed his forehead as if he had a headache. He probably did, Rodney thought sourly. John probably hadn't taken any medicine for it either, self–sacrificing son of a bitch. "That's the point. I should've been there. I should've been there, and I wasn't. And I can't risk letting them down again."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his stone. It still had wire wrapped around it. He held it out. "Here."
Rodney stepped backwards as if John had tried to hand him a live grenade. "No. No. No way. I'm not taking that. I'm not losing any chance of seeing you."
"I don't want to lose you either," John said simply. "But it has to be like this. What I've been doing, it's wrong. You said I'm not a coward, so let me be brave already." He grabbed Rodney's hand and turned it palm up to fold the stone into it. "Goodbye, Rodney," he said. "Thanks. For everything."
"No!" Rodney lunged and grabbed the collar of John's filthy shirt in his free hand. "No," he said again, much more softly. And then he hauled John forward and kissed him.
John made a small noise of surprise and Rodney was sure he was going to shove him away, but he didn't. The little noise deepened, slid into something a lot more like a sigh of release or contentment. And John was the one who thrust his tongue into Rodney's mouth and put both his empty hands on the sides of Rodney's head, like he was planning to never let go of him.
Rodney's glasses had been knocked askew and he was sure the noises he made were a lot less sexy and a lot more desperate and mewling, but John didn't seem to care. Rodney didn't notice when he dropped the stone, but he was excruciatingly aware of the way John's breath hitched when Rodney slid his hands up the inside of his shirt, or how he moaned into Rodney's mouth and gave a full–body shudder when Rodney's thumb flicked over his nipple.
Rodney wrenched his mouth away from John, ignoring John's protesting whimper, and dropped to his knees. "Shh, shh, it's all right, I got you," he murmured. He took a precious second to toss his eyeglasses onto the bed, then fumbled frantically at John's belt. It was a little unnerving that as soon as the belt was loosened John's pants fell to his ankles. His cock was a rigid line beneath his boxers, a wet circle around the head. Rodney could smell the musk of it, John's sweat underneath, and it was all he could do not to rip John's boxers right off him rather than gently tug them down.
When Rodney nuzzled John's groin and breathed in John gasped like he'd been shot. Rodney ran his hands up the warm, trembling muscles of John's thighs to his waist. Rodney winced at how prominent John's ribs were, each curve overly defined. Artifacts of five years in a warzone.
Rodney moved his hands down again to cup the too sharp triangle of John's pelvis, holding him in place as Rodney settled his lips around the glistening head of John's cock. John's bit–back cry was so heavy with need it sounded like he was in pain. He was randomly petting Rodney's head, his lean hips jerking helplessly as Rodney took more of him in. John gripped Rodney's hair, thrusting into Rodney's mouth like he'd lost all semblance of control or restraint. It was an incredible turn–on, and Rodney let go of John with one hand so he could palm his own cock through his pants.
John's hands fumbled down to paw at Rodney's shoulders as John shook into his orgasm, coming so hard that Rodney had to whip both hands back to John's waist to keep his knees from buckling. Rodney wasn't expecting it and half John's come ended up running down his chin. He wiped it away with the hem of his shirt.
John collapsed heavily onto his knees, still shuddering a little and panting like an engine. He wrapped one arm around Rodney and put his head on his shoulder, which somehow felt more intimate than having John's dick in his mouth had been.
"Help me," John said as he tried to undo the button on Rodney's pants one–handed. Rodney was so hard it was difficult pulling down the zipper without damaging himself, but then John deftly eased Rodney's cock out of his underwear and nothing else mattered but bucking into the grip of that strong, calloused hand. John lifted his head and Rodney turned his and John kissed him and held him steady, jacking Rodney hard and fast until Rodney's climax roared out of him.
Rodney gulped in air while John gentled him, until the sensation got too much and he had to pull John's hand away. Rodney only grimaced a little when John wiped his wet hand on Rodney's already abused shirt.
"Wow," Rodney said, completely incapable of anything more articulate. John smirked, but then all of a sudden he pulled Rodney into a hug. It was awkward, with both of them half–naked and still on their knees, but Rodney didn't hesitate before he returned it, wrapping John in his arms. Rodney held John so tightly that he thought he might be hurting him, but John didn't move or complain; just kept his arms around Rodney like he never wanted to let go.
"Thank you," John said softly. But he was the first to pull away.
Rodney blinked, watching John as he shifted around until he could refasten and straighten his clothes, but it was only when he climbed to his feet that Rodney realized this was it: John was leaving.
"Wait!" Rodney surged to his feet, yanking up his clothes and refastening them. "You don't—you don't have to go now, do you? I mean, you just, you're not going to just leave!"
John's smile was thin and false as hope, and there was nothing in it but awful resignation. "I'm sorry."
"No, wait! Don't!" Rodney reached for John, but his hands just went through him. "No!"
"So long, Rodney," John said. And in the space of a heartbeat he was gone.
John's stone was still there on the floor, where Rodney had dropped it.
Radek took a quick, careful glance around the cafeteria then leaned closer. "Still no sign of him?"
Rodney shook his head and took another sip of coffee, which tasted like caffeinated mud. He couldn't help glancing around the cafeteria himself, not that he really expected to see anyone. He took a bite of his meal, which was just as tasteless as the coffee.
Rodney knew the problem wasn't actually with the food.
"He's not coming back, Radek," Rodney said, making sure they wouldn't be overheard. "He left the stone here."
It wasn't like that was news to either of them, but it still hurt, not having John there anymore. Rodney could admit that to himself, in the lonely quiet of his own head. He'd barely had a chance to know the man, but that didn't make the void John had left behind any easier to deal with. And Rodney had so many now: his country, his sister, Samantha. And now John.
Rodney knew he wasn't an artist or a poetic man, but lately he'd been feeling like his heart had been punctured, gaping holes where once people had been. Sometimes he imagined that too many more of them and he'd drop right through and disappear. Like John had: right out of the world.
He still carried both the stones around in his pockets. He knew there was no point, but he couldn't make himself leave them behind in his room.
"I know he did," Radek said on a sigh. "But in your room, John was firmly present even though you dropped the stone, yes? So, now you have both, can you not use them to find him?"
"No." Rodney drank more coffee to help get rid of the tightness in his throat. "God knows I've tried." Radek would never know how many times. "John was—is—the one with the ATA gene. He controlled the crossovers, even if he didn't realize it. I'm sure of that now." Rodney leaned in and lowered his voice even further. "And he told us there was that mental component, remember?" He shrugged, though he wasn't able to meet Radek's eyes. "I think it's pretty obvious that he doesn't want to come back."
Radek made a frustrated grunting noise. "Rodney," he said, just harshly enough to make Rodney look at him. "If that was true, why do you think he left the stone behind?"
"Weren't you listening?" Rodney said. "He left the stone behind so he'd have no way of contacting me again."
"Avoiding temptation, yes. I understand." Radek said. "But if he wanted to get rid of the stone, why not throw it into the sea surrounding his floating city? Why not smash it with a hammer? But instead of doing either of those things, he gave the stone to you. I think John wants you to find him." He stabbed a potato and popped it into his mouth, staring at Rodney while he chewed.
Rodney stared back. He was remembering John in his bed, trusting Rodney completely when he was too tired to stand. And what John had told him: Thank you for finding me.
"I can't," Rodney said, soft but angry. The surge of hope he'd felt died, leaving another hole in his chest. "I told you. I don't have the gene. It doesn't work for me."
Radek swallowed the annihilated potato. "Not yet. But now you know he wants to come back. That will make a difference, I think." He nodded at Rodney's mostly untouched meal. "Eat. I don't want to deal with your hypoglycemia this afternoon."
"It's not that bad," Rodney groused, but he obediently started forking up the food anyway. It tasted better than it had in days.
"You are terrible today, John," Teyla said with her usual complete lack of sympathy. She coupled it with a hard smack across his ribs, delivered with a complete lack of pity or remorse. John fell as much because he needed a break from the uninterrupted beating as because it was a little hard to breathe.
"Yeah, well," he wheezed, looking up at her from the mat, "I guess a whole two weeks without having to run for our lives doesn't agree with me." He sat up painfully, favoring everything, then nodded in gratitude when Teyla passed him a towel. Apparently she'd given up on her poorest student for the day, thank God.
Teyla snorted. "That is a blatant lie." She lowered herself to the mat with her customary grace and sat next to him, wordlessly passing John one of the hollow branches the Athosians still used to carry water, despite having been part of the Satedan Empire for over 50 years.
John pulled off the cap and took a long drink, enjoying the light spiciness the wood gave to the water. "It's not blatant," he said, handing it back to her.
Teyla just rolled her eyes and took a long drink herself, then wiped her mouth with the edge of her towel. "Yes it is." She offered the water to John again, but when he shook his head she recapped it and put it away. "We have lost a great many people recently, both from this city and the Empire." She wiped her forehead with her towel, but then just held it in her lap, staring out the windows at the far end of the expansive room. "Sora was very dear to me, and now she is gone. Halling also, and Charin. All within the past year. It would not surprise me if the losses of your people are more painful now, when you have time to truly mourn them."
"Yeah," John said thickly. She wasn't wrong. It was just that one of the people he was mourning wasn't actually dead. "Yeah, I guess that's it." He also found the view of the endless New Lantean Ocean much easier to look at than his friend's eyes. "There's one person. I left him behind on Earth, actually. I just…" He swallowed. "I just really miss him." The and I'll never see him again didn't need to be said. Teyla knew about losing contact with Earth just as well as John did.
Teyla took John's hand and held it on her thigh, threading her fingers in between his. "I'm sorry, John," she said simply. "I wish it were in my power to bring him here for you."
John could only nod because his throat was too painful to let him speak. But he squeezed Teyla's hand in thanks, and she seemed to understand.
She let his hand go with a reluctant sigh before she climbed to her feet. "Perhaps the mission this afternoon will lighten both our spirits."
John managed a smirk. "Nothing like getting shot at to put things in perspective, huh?"
Teyla gave him a playful swat with her towel. "There is every reason to assume this will be another peaceful mission. I for one am very much looking forward to the market."
John would have been too, but he knew he'd spend half the time doing double–takes, thinking he'd somehow found the one person he knew he'd never see.
Rodney was at his desk glowering at the stones. He'd been trying for an hour to make the damn things work, but all he'd gotten was a headache. It was almost a relief when someone began to pound on his door.
"All right! All right! I'm coming! Hold on!" Rodney quickly scooped up the two artifacts and shoved them into his pocket, then trotted to the door and heaved it open. "Radek, I swear I—"
Radek was there, but so were two of the hulking Spetsnaz, each of them holding one of Radek's arms. He was all but swinging between them, looking like a rabbit in a bear trap. Svetlana was standing next to them.
"What is this?" she asked with deceptive mildness, and showed him the Personal Phase Model prototype she was carrying.
Teyla had been right: the mission was peaceful. John had even enjoyed the market a little, wandering through the plethora of stalls with Ford while Ronon and Teyla caught up with old friends. Everything turned out fine, just like Teyla predicted.
The four of them had been attacked at the Alpha site, when they'd gated there as a precaution before returning to Atlantis. The real irony, though, was how it wasn't the Orcs; just some raiders who'd happened to come back to their old base a few hours earlier.
The raiders were called Bolikai, and hadn't much liked how there were two strangers guarding their gate. They killed them, of course, but then they'd noticed the nifty gadgets and weapons while they were looting the corpses. So they'd waited to see what they could take from whoever came through next.
That was what John had managed to glean between the blows, anyway. But when he finally dropped he was concentrating too hard on protecting his head to hear much of anything else.
It hadn't exactly been a fair fight, what with two guys holding his arms while two others went to town on him and a fifth kept asking the same questions. John hadn't told them where his team had come from or where they got the cool stuff, but he'd remembered enough of Teyla's lessons to make one guy regurgitate his spleen and another lose all hope of having children. They hadn't liked that much, either.
John had passed out around the same time one of them had jumped on his ribs. The awful snapping noise and stabbing agony had been what carried him down into oblivion. He'd woken up in a prison cell that he hoped to God was still on the Alpha site, with Ronon holding him upright so he could breathe.
John kind of didn't want to breathe. Breathing hurt like a bitch.
"Colonel!" Ford limped towards him, looking terrifyingly relieved, but his face was ashen in the dim overhead light. Ford's voice sounded a little funny, and it looked like his nose was broken, with a huge, dark circle around each of his eyes. He sat slowly and with obvious pain. "Sir, are you… Can you hear me?"
John nodded. "'M' here," he managed, and even that felt like hot knives in his lungs. He tried to breathe through the pain, but that was difficult when he couldn't breathe in the first place. "What… situation…"
"Please, John, don't talk," Teyla said. She came closer as well, moving gingerly. "After they interrogated you, the Bolikai brought us here." She frowned. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to escape from them."
"There were at least fifteen of them," Ford said, like he took Teyla's apology as a personal insult. "And they broke your arm. What were you supposed to do?"
John's eyes widened. He tried to turn to see Teyla, but that was a very bad idea and he ended up shuddering in pain, completely unable to control the whimpering noises coming out of his mouth.
"She's fine. We all are, 'cept you," Ronon said.
Both Ford and Teyla nodded, despite how obvious a lie that was. John was sure Ronon was hurt just as badly as the rest of them, but he didn't have the strength to ask and figured no one would tell him anyway.
"Right now they're trying to decide if they should just kill us now, or send someone back to the Alpha site for when our people try contacting us," Ronon went on. "They figure they can hold us for ransom."
Fuck. That would be really, really bad. Atlantis couldn't afford to give up a damn thing, not when they were trying to rebuild after the devastation the Orcs left them with. It would kill Weir to write off his team, but John hoped to hell she'd think of her city first and do it.
And John knew that the Empire had a strict policy of never negotiating. Not even for a beloved son of the realm like Ronon, let alone a non–Satedan like Teyla.
"They won't get anything," Ford said, with the same cold certainty John was feeling. "And when the Bolikai realize that, they're going to kill us."
Ronon chuffed a bitter laugh. "They're going to kill us anyway. Did you notice how clean the cells are? That's because the Bolikai don't take prisoners."
"They take them. They just don't keep them," Teyla said.
"So, what do we do?" Ford was asking all of them, but looking right at John.
John didn't want to shatter the faith in those keen, bruised eyes, but he had nothing. It was taking everything he had just to force his lungs to work despite the pain.
"We can jump the guards when they come to get John's body," Ronon said.
"Hey!" Ford barked. "What the hell, Ronon?"
"That was in poor taste, Ronon," Teyla said, glaring at him.
John felt Ronon shrug his big shoulders. "Sorry," he said. But he didn't actually say it'd been a joke.
"I swear, I told them nothing," Radek hissed. He looked wildly around the room as if he could somehow see the bugs Svetlana had doubtless planted before her comrade goons shoved him and Rodney in there. "I did not know Lubivitch had learned my passcodes!"
Rodney answered without bothering to lift his head from his hands. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers, reaching beneath his glasses. "I told you to stop using the names of your pigeons, Radek. Even Lubivitch was bound to figure it out eventually, the way you go on about them."
"When? When have I ever 'gone on' about my racing pigeons?" Radek demanded. "I talked about them one time! One time in all the months I have known you and you didn't listen anyway. Go on about my pigeons," he huffed.
"Fine. Then you shouldn't have named your favorite one 'Olga'," Rodney said. "It's too easy to remember."
Radek didn't answer, not that Rodney was particularly enjoying being right. "We are so screwed," he said. "You can't even comprehend how screwed we are. Svetlana knows about the prototype."
"I know," Radek agreed miserably. He looked at Rodney again. "Will your government intervene on our behalf, do you think?"
"Which government?" Rodney scoffed. He sighed. "The Americans, maybe. It depends if they can find anyone else able to build another prototype for them. The Canadians, maybe. If only because moving my base of operations back home would boost the economy. They'd never presume to take the PPM from their beloved American allies, though, which means they might not take you. Unless I insisted on it. Maybe then." He shrugged before finally letting his hands thump down on the table. "But in case you haven't noticed, President Landry hasn't exactly been champing at the bit to get me back."
Radek grunted in sad agreement. "And this is all moot anyway, since we cannot even get message to them."
"Too bad you didn't think of that when you finished the design for the PPM and then lied to us about it," Svetlana said. She breezed into the room as if she'd been cued, which of course she had been since she'd heard everything. Two more Spetsnaz came in behind her holding very large and intimidating machine guns. As if Rodney needed any reminding of just how bad this was. The Russian government wouldn't even have to go out of its way to imprison them, considering they were already in Siberia.
Svetlana put the PPM on the table in front of Rodney. "I thought we were friends," she said, sounding genuinely hurt. "But you lied to my face. How could you do that?"
"I'm sorry," Rodney said, a little surprised that he actually meant it. He suddenly wondered if the choice of room had been more intentional than coincidence, since this was the same empty lab where Rodney had taken John and where Svetlana liked to have sex. Rodney didn't know if she wanted to remind him of their relationship, or just remind him how fucked he was. "It wasn't, um, it wasn't personal. I just wanted an incentive for Landry to recall me."
Svetlana snorted. "A bribe, you mean." She took her cigarette case out of her jacket pocket, opened it and pulled one out. Rodney didn't bother asking her not to smoke. "Well, here's another incentive for you." She made them wait while she lit her cigarette, then jutted her chin at the prototype. "Build us another one. One that actually works. And maybe we won't send you to a gulag."
"What?" Rodney demanded. "It works! Of course it works! I designed it!" He turned his glare on Radek. "What did you do?"
"Nothing!" Radek protested, spreading his hands. "I followed your blueprints, nothing else!"
"Hmm." Svetlana took another drag, looking mildly amused. "Really, Rodney. If you want something done well, do it yourself."
"Ooh, quoting Napoleon," Rodney said. "Because things turned out so well for him."
Svetlana's smile was icy. "He learned the hard way that you don't take on my country and expect to win."
"I'm not trying to take on The Motherland, for God's sake," Rodney snapped. "I just want to go home." He pulled the blueprints closer. "Wait." He adjusted his glasses, but it didn't help. He glared at Radek. "These aren't mine."
"What? Of course they are," Radek's protested. "This is exactly what you sent to me. Why would I purposely sabotage your design?"
Svetlana arched an eyebrow as she exhaled smoke through her nose. She looked like a delicate bull. "Perhaps Rodney isn't the only one looking for a bribe."
"Yeah. Fuck." Rodney closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "But it's not Radek." Radek had the brains, sure, but not the heart for that kind of betrayal. "You did say that Lubivitch figured out your passcodes, right?"
He opened his eyes to see Radek gaping at him, before he began to swear quietly but vociferously in Czech. "That bastard. Of course he would do that. Sabotage your design and then build the real one and take the credit for it."
"How lucky for you that he's incompetent," Svetlana said sweetly. She turned to the Spetsnaz. "Perhaps we should find out where he is right now."
One of the two hulks gave her a single, sharp nod and left the room. Rodney shuddered, almost sorry for Lubivitch.
"Very well," Svetlana crushed out the butt of her cigarette on the lab table. "We'll bring you the materials you need, and you will fix this." She checked her watch. "You have until tomorrow morning."
"Wait, what? Tomorrow morning?" Rodney glanced quickly at his own watch. "You can't mean that. It's 10:30 at night!"
"Yes, I do mean it," Svetlana snapped. "We'll bring you supplies."
She left with the remaining Spetsnaz trailing in her wake like an obedient shark.
"Aren't you going to post guards?" Rodney asked, genuinely confused. He ignored Radek's kick to his ankle.
Svetlana turned around. "We are in the Siberian wilderness, Rodney. Where would you go?"
And on that depressing thought, she left them alone.
John didn't remember falling asleep, but he woke up from a dream where he was drowning, only to gag on the blood running out of his mouth. Teyla was rubbing his back, saying words John was in too much pain to understand. He couldn't breathe and coughing didn't help and it hurt so much that the world grayed out around the edges.
When he dragged himself back to full consciousness for the second time he was sitting up in Ronon's arms again.
"John! John, you with us, buddy?" Ronon said.
"Right… here." It took a tremendous effort to say the words.
"Thank God," Ford said. He looked like he was practically in tears.
"Sorry," John said.
"Don't talk." Teyla brushed his hair back from his forehead. Her hand felt very warm. John's hair was wet. Maybe he really had been drowning. That didn't make sense, though for a very long moment John couldn't figure out why. It was the constant taste of copper in his mouth that finally clued him in. He was drowning, just not in water.
"What…?" The word was barely audible, despite how much effort it cost him to get the sound out of his mouth.
"Teyla said don't talk," Ronon told him. "You're going to pass out again."
John shook his head, though he wasn't entirely sure what he was refusing. "No. What—"
"You were asleep," Teyla said, answering his question. "Not for very long. No one has come."
"We got to get out of here," Ford said. He stood up by pulling on the bars of their cell, then limped back and forth in front of them, obviously looking for a weakness. John knew he was pretty out of it, but as far as he could tell there were none. But at least it gave Ford something to do. He was nervous enough without the inactivity adding to it.
"At—lantis… will come," John said, trying to reassure him. Talking that much was a very painful mistake John regretted immediately, especially as all it did was leave him gasping and fighting the black dots in front of his eyes. Unconsciousness would be better than this kind of pain, but he remembered his dream of drowning, and he was scared that if he passed out again this time he wouldn't wake up.
He had to stay alive; Atlantis needed him.
The word 'ironic' floated through his brain, and John chased it lethargically until it connected with the memory of Rodney, trying so badly to make John change his mind. His blue eyes had looked strangely vulnerable without his glasses, and Rodney had been so sad. John really wanted to stay but Atlantis needed him, so he'd willed himself back to his own universe. And now he was dying and Atlantis would be without him anyway.
Just like Rodney. Only Rodney would never even know John had died, because he'd left the stone behind so he'd never be able to go back, no matter how much he wanted to.
God, how he wanted to.
John wanted to talk to Rodney about something other than desperation and misery, the empty survival that didn't even feel like being alive. He wanted to make Rodney laugh and take some of that perpetual sadness out of his eyes. He wanted to show Rodney his city, and let Rodney's wonder rekindle his own. John wanted to make love to him, instead of the frantic sex that was all they'd ever have.
It would've been better if the other John was still alive in Rodney's universe, John thought. Maybe they could've met someday. John couldn't imagine any version of himself not wanting Rodney the way he did. He hadn't wanted anyone as much as Rodney in a very long time.
It was selfish to wish he could go back; John knew that. But he was dying in a dank cell on an alien planet and all he wanted in the entire galaxy—the entire fucking universe—was to be able to see Rodney again.
"What time is it?" Rodney squinted blearily at his watch, then grimaced to see that it was already past four in the morning. Svetlana had been true to her word and had brought them everything he and Radek needed to build a new PPM prototype, including food and coffee and Rodney's laptop with the original blueprints. But dismantling Lubivitch's sabotage was a Gordian knot of frustration that had turned into complete futility around two am.
After that they'd just taken the fucking thing apart and started rebuilding it.
Rodney tore his glasses off his nose, but folded them carefully and put them on the table instead of throwing them across the room. He tried to rub away the ache in the bridge of his nose. "This is hell. No, this is worse than hell. Siberia would be better than this."
"We are in Siberia," Radek said. He didn't look up from the component he was examining. "I don't remember seeing this before."
"Siberian gulag, then," Rodney said. "You know what I mean." He snatched the piece out of Radek's hands, turned it around and shoved it back at him.
Radek blinked at it, then made an 'aha!' noise and grinned, then began soldering it into place. The PPM was looking more and more like a misbegotten hate–child between a jetpack and Cthulu's vacuum cleaner, but at least it was almost finished.
Rodney turned on his noise–dampening computer program, feeling childishly smug that Svetlana still didn't know about it. "You know," he said quietly to Radek, "once this thing's working, we could use it to get out of here."
"And where would we go?" Those were practically the same words Svetlana had used, and delivered with the same incredulity. "We are hundreds of kilometers from anywhere. Being out of phase won't keep us from freezing to death."
"Right, right, right." Rodney sighed, rubbing his temples. "I'm exhausted. I hate this."
He wanted to sleep, which of course made him think of John, who'd been so exhausted he'd let Rodney lead him around like a puppy. Rodney didn't even think Sam had ever trusted him like that.
He put his glasses back on, then reached into his pants pockets and pulled out the stones and put them on the lab table. Then for no reason he could name, he nudged them around until they were touching at the thinner end, like they were kissing. It made him smile briefly, if only for how silly it was.
John's stone still had the wire wrapped around it. There was no reason to keep it like that, but Rodney knew he'd never take it off. This was John's stone, and it was the only souvenir of their brief time together that Rodney had.
Radek clicked off the soldering gun. He turned to Rodney with a grin of triumph, but it fell when he saw the artifacts. He put his hand on Rodney's back. "I'm so sorry, my friend," he said.
Rodney nodded, mutely acknowledging Radek's gesture. "I miss him," he said. "I know how stupid that is. I barely know the man. But I really miss him. I wish…" He sighed. "It doesn't matter. He's gone." He angrily snatched up the rocks and John was there on the other side of the room.
Rodney yelped in shock and would have dropped the stones if Radek hadn't clamped his hands around Rodney's fist and held them. Rodney nodded at Radek's wide–eyed, unspoken question, and Radek slowly let go. As soon as he did Rodney shoved both the rocks into his pants pocket, keeping his hand on them.
"Oh God, he's hurt!" Rodney sprinted around the lab table and crashed to his knees in front of John, barely registering Radek crouching beside him. John was sitting up, though whatever he was leaning on was invisible. He had a terrifying amount of blood around his mouth, but wherever the blood had wiped off Rodney could see John's lips were blue. His lungs barely seemed to be moving. "John! John! What happened? Where are you?"
John was so still that for a terrible moment Rodney was sure he was dead, and then he opened his eyes with what looked like a terrible effort. He blinked slowly, then he saw Rodney and he smiled. It was a ghastly, red–smeared thing but right then to Rodney it was beautiful.
John lifted his hand to reach for him, but when John tried to touch Rodney's face his fingers went right through.
"What? No!" Rodney smacked his hand to his cheek, as if that would somehow make John's touch tangible. He looked frantically at Radek. "You can see him, right?" He kept speaking over Radek's nod. "He knows I'm here! Why can't I feel him?"
"How should I know?" Radek demanded. "You're the one with—the stones! The stones! You have both of them now. Maybe John needs one to fully bridge our universes?"
"Great! That's a fantastic theory, Radek!" Rodney barked, shrill with fear. "There's just the little problem of how John is regrettably intangible at the moment, so I can't give his stone to him! He's dying, Radek! He's dying and I can't even touch him!" Rodney looked at John again. "Come on, John! Come on, connect our universes the way you always do. Either come here or bring me there but you have to do something!"
John closed his eyes.
"No!" Rodney reached to grab John's shoulders and shake him, forgetting in his terror that it was impossible until his hands went through John's body. But then John grimaced and opened his eyes. He gave the barest shake of his head. He looked sad.
"It didn't work," Radek said.
"Obviously," Rodney snapped. "John, please. You don't need to touch the stones to make them work. They're both in my pocket." He pulled out the stones, holding them so John could see them. "See? I'm almost with you. All you have to do is get me across."
John looked stricken, and Rodney was horrified to see the shine of tears in his eyes. Rodney couldn't hear him, but John's mouth moved like he was trying to form words, but then he started coughing, chest heaving as he fought to breathe. And then he disappeared.
"No! No! John!" Rodney dropped the stones and thrust his hands into the space John had been, but all he managed was to bark his knuckles on the wall. He looked helplessly at Radek. "He's gone! Oh, God, what if he's dead? What do I do?"
Radek looked as hopeless and upset as Rodney felt, but then he looked at the stones on the floor and scrambled over to them. He snatched them up and shoved them at Rodney. "Use the stones! Maybe with both of them you can get to wherever he is."
Rodney took the stones automatically, though he was shaking his head. "I can't, Radek! I tried! I don't have the ATA gene. All I did was open the door to John's universe the first time. He was the one who walked through."
"Rodney," Radek said, so sharply that Rodney stared at him. "You don't have special gene, but you do have John's stone," he said, his accent thickening with urgency. "You agreed with John that there was mental component, yes? So if it did not work, maybe it's because you were thinking the wrong thoughts. John's life is at stake, at least try!"
"Yes. Yes, you're right." Rodney licked his lips, staring at the two stones in his hand as if they themselves could tell him what to do. "Okay, so. We know I need to be touching them…"
He stopped, blinking, then lurched to his feet. Radek shot up as well. "Wait! Wait, wait." Rodney snapped his fingers. "It wasn't always John. I didn't just open the door—The first time our universes really connected, that was me! Radek!" Rodney looked at him, hope a sudden and tremulous thing in his chest. "It was me!"
Radek nodded. "The mental component," he said, looking hopeful as well. "Do it, Rodney."
"Wait." Rodney ran to the lab table and slapped his laptop shut and scooped it up one–handed. He darted back to the wall and smacked the laptop it against Radek's chest. "Hold this."
Radek took it automatically, but he looked frightened. "It is a warzone, Rodney."
"I know," Rodney said. "But it's Atlantis. Don't tell me that won't be better than here."
Radek swallowed. He still looked afraid, but Rodney wasn't surprised when he nodded. "What about the PPM?"
"Let them have it," Rodney said. It wasn't finished anyway. "Now please shut up and let me concentrate. And grab on." He waited until Radek wrapped his free arm around Rodney's, then he transferred John's stone into his left hand. "Okay. Here we go."
He concentrated, clenching his eyes shut and his hands around the stones until his fingers ached. This time he didn't think about making the stones work; he thought about John.
Rodney wanted to think about him laughing and happy, or asleep in Rodney's room, or the way he'd responded to Rodney's touch. But Rodney wouldn't find him like that, so he forced himself to envision John as Rodney had last seen him: barely conscious with blood smeared around his blue–tinged lips. Dying.
Rodney concentrated on how frightened he was for John, how terrible it would be to lose him. How badly he wanted to see him again.
How lonely Rodney was without him. He found me too. Please, help me find him again.
And then Radek gasped out something in Czech and Rodney snapped his eyes open.
He and Radek were standing in a dingy cell that stank of mildew and John's blood, and almost before Rodney could even register that they were there, he'd done it, two of the four people already there surged to their feet and the young man grabbed Rodney by the collar and shoved him back against the bars.
"Who the fuck are you?" The young man demanded. "How'd you get here?" His dark eyes were bruised and very angry.
"Radek?" The shout came from the large man sitting on the floor. He was holding John upright against his chest, his arms wrapped protectively around him. He shifted, looking ready to lay John down and come at them despite his astonishment.
"Dr. Zelenka?" the young man echoed in amazement, but he didn't loosen his grip. "What the hell is this? He's—" he stopped and looked at Rodney again. "You're both dead! What the fuck?" He yanked on Rodney's collar, but only to slam him into the bars again. "Who are you?"
"Aiden, stop," the woman said. She was beautiful even with the bruises and confusion on her face, though it was obvious something was wrong with one of her arms. Aiden glanced at her and then only hesitated a moment before he let Rodney go. He stepped back, still glaring.
"Who are you, and how did you come here? And why do you resemble dead men?" the woman said to Rodney and Radek. Her tone was more gentle, but just as fierce as the boy's had been.
"We're from another universe! Like the alternate Daedalus that saved you from the Orc attack. We came here to rescue John," Rodney blurted. He held out the two stones. "We used these."
"We are not dead in our universe," Radek said. He clutched Rodney's laptop to his chest like it could shield him.
"That's John's stone," Aiden said. He was looking at Rodney's, but the stones were identical so it didn't matter. Aiden glared at Rodney again. "How'd you get it?"
"Gave… him," John said behind Aiden, and all four of them looked at him at once.
"John!" Rodney, Aiden and the woman exclaimed.
John tugged his lips into another ghastly smile. "Hey… Rodney…"
"John, please. You must stop talking," the woman said to him.
"Oh God, you look terrible." Rodney crossed the two steps to where John was and knelt in front of him.
"Don't touch him," the large man snarled. He looked completely prepared to take Rodney out even with John in his arms.
"S'okay," John murmured. He reached out and clumsily patted Rodney's leg. "S–sorry…"
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney said quickly. "You were a dick and you're terribly sorry and you'll never do it again. Now can you please shut up before you asphyxiate yourself?"
"I don't get it." Aiden seemed a lot less hostile, which was definitely preferable, but he was still wary. "If you're not our McKay and Zelenka, how do you know John? And what are you doing here?"
"Shut up," Rodney warned John before he could speak again. "These stones connect universes," he said to the others. "No, I don't know how yet, but John had one and then I got one, and we must've been holding them at the same time or something, and we started being able to see each other, and then to cross universes." He gestured at Radek. "Even with other people. And then John left his behind." Rodney glowered at him. "And I thought I'd never see him again. And then he appeared like this in the lab Radek and I were in. And we used both stones to come here to save him."
"How?" the big guy said. "You're locked in here same as us."
"Do you have a plan?" the woman asked them. She glanced at John and her expression spoke volumes. "We do not have much time."
"Yeah, right." Rodney nodded briskly. He turned to John. "John, are you with us? Don't speak, just nod or something."
"Great. That's great. Fantastic." Rodney was sure his smile looked as awful as John's, but Rodney doubted John was aware enough to notice. "Okay, uh, here's what we're going to do." He put both his and John's stone into one of John's lax hands and closed his fingers around it. John's nails were tinged with blue, like his lips. "I need you to get us out of here, John. Can you do that?"
John forced his eyes open a crack further. It looked like it was taking all his will and concentration just to breathe. It was barely a twitch when he shook his head, but his expression was eloquent with hopelessness.
"What? No! Of course you can! You have to!" Rodney clutched John's hand closed with both of his so he wouldn't drop the stones. "Come on, John—don't do this. Get us out of here."
"John." Radek went to his knees as well. "Can you can hear me? Excellent," he went on before John could even react. "The stones need a mental component, remember? You didn't have to do anything to stay, that time. You just wanted to, no? So, do that again. Take us where you want to be."
"Yes, yes, that's good." Rodney nodded quickly. "John—think about someplace good. Like, Atlantis. Or, or, I don't know. Just somewhere you want to be that isn't here, okay? There has to be an equivalent in my universe. So just take us there, all right?" He realized he was unconsciously chafing John's hand and stopped in case he was hurting him. John's skin was frighteningly cold. "You don't have to do anything except think of somewhere good. Just think of somewhere good, John."
"Come closer," Radek said to the others, "In case this works."
John's eyes closed completely and Rodney held his breath, still gripping John's hand. He felt the woman take his arm and Radek slid his fingers under Rodney's collar. "Please, John," Rodney murmured. "Please get us out of here so we can help you."
Rodney heard Aiden gasp and he whipped his head around to see.
All six of them were in Rodney's room in Siberia. It was exactly as Rodney had left it when the Spetsnaz had come to get him.
"Holy shit! Where are we?" Aiden sounded like he didn't know if he should be freaked out or elated.
Rodney ignored him. He moved one of his hands to cup John's face. "That's incredibly sweet, but this is probably one of the worst places for us to be right now." As if on cue, an alarm started blaring. Rodney glanced at his watch and saw that yes, Svetlana had just taken her goons to see if he and Radek had finished the PPM. "And as you can probably tell by the alarm, they're searching for me and Radek and will likely come busting in here any second. So you need to get us out of here too."
"Take us to Atlantis, John," the woman said gently. "Take us home."
John was dozing in his cot in the infirmary when the blast of light passed right through him.
"Fucking hell!" He surged upright, completely awake, and then hissed and grabbed his side when his ribs reminded him that he shouldn't do that. He looked around, moving much more carefully, and saw at least three more blasts slide down from the high ceiling and into the floor.
"John, it's okay. You're okay. We're fine." That was Rodney. John didn't know how long Rodney had been there, but John relaxed a little as soon as he saw him. He was sure Rodney wouldn't look that smug and excited and happy unless everything really was all right.
"What the hell's going on?"
"The FSCPM!" Rodney exclaimed gleefully. "The Full–Size, City Phase Module."
John made a face. "The what?"
"The Full—never mind. The name is a work–in–progress, all right?" Rodney's momentary scowl blossomed into happiness again. "But the point is, Radek and I made a machine that took the whole planet out of phase with the rest of this universe." He gave John a huge grin. "It took a few days but, it worked! The Orcs can't even see us!"
John blinked at him, then blinked again. "What?"
Rodney's happy expression crumpled a little, but then he took a huge breath and rallied. "Okay. Let's see if I can explain this for semi–coherent, recovering Colonels to understand."
"Hey," John said mildly.
Rodney ignored him, too busy pulling up a nearby chair with a screech so he could sit down. "You remember the whole thing about multiple universes, right?"
"Little hard to forget," John drawled.
"Well, good," Rodney said. "Because, you know." He gestured vaguely at his temple. "All the oxygen deprivation…"
John narrowed his eyes at him. Then another beam zapped through the space between them and both John and Rodney jumped. John winced again when it made his ribs hurt.
Suddenly Rodney was all wide–eyed concern. "Are you all right? Do you need me to get that Scottish doctor?"
"I don't need Carson," John said, emphasizing the name. "But I would really like to know why those beams aren't killing us, Rodney."
"Oh. Of course." Rodney seemed to have been completely derailed by John being in pain, which was kind of cool, actually. "Where was I? Oh, yes." He sat taller in his chair, humming in obvious satisfaction. "Radek and I made a machine capable of taking the whole planet out of phase with this universe. So right now we're completely invisible and intangible." He pointed at the place the beams had been. "Those beams were the Orcs trying to destroy us." He grinned again. "They probably thought we were cloaked. I wish I could see their faces, now that they think their scanners were completely wrong."
John's eyes widened. "They found us again?"
Rodney frowned at him. "Of course they did. Why do you think Radek and I built the machine?" He leaned closer, looking concerned. "You did understand what I said, right?" He held up his hand with his three middle fingers in a 'W'. "How many fingers?"
John batted his hand aside. "Yes, I understood you, Rodney," he told him with great patience, "but I didn't know the Orcs found us. When did that happen? And why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Because you were still dead to the world and breathing through a tube, maybe?" Rodney rolled his eyes. "You know this is the first time you've actually been, you know, there, there in the last four days? You were almost hypoxic when we got back to Atlantis." He grinned again. "You know we all appeared in the rec room, eh? That was cute."
"The rec room?" John blinked at him. His last coherent memory was Teyla telling him to take them home, to Atlantis. Obviously he had, though it was weird that he had no recollection of doing it. Even weirder was how seeing Rodney in Atlantis wasn't weird at all, like John had just expected him to be there.
Rodney nodded vigorously. "Yup. You got blood all over the couch." He winced. "Actually, let's not talk about that." He took John's nearer hand, being careful not to dislodge the oxygen monitor clamped on his finger. "You know Carson has an Ancient healing device, eh?" He went on without waiting for John's nod. "He said some scientists found it in one of the abandoned labs. It looks a lot like a prototype version of the ones the Goa'uld use. You were the first test subject. Congratulations." He made a face. "It doesn't work very well, that's for sure. But it did keep you from dying, so there's that." He caressed the back of John's hand with his thumb. "I need to fix it. Or make a better one, or something. You shouldn't still be lying here in pain."
"I'm okay, Rodney," John said seriously. He made himself smile. "I just wish I hadn't slept through you and Radek saving Atlantis."
Rodney gave him a look that said he knew exactly what John was doing, but John just blinked innocently at him. "Yes," Rodney huffed. "And then we saved Atlantis while you slept through the whole thing. And you're welcome."
"Thank you," John said with mock gravity.
"Oh, yeah. That was touching," Rodney scoffed, but his expression had a soft fondness in it that made John's stomach flip in a way he hadn't felt in years. "Hey." Rodney snapped his fingers like he'd just remembered something. "Guess what? The Scot—Carson is going to give me therapy for the ATA gene." He smiled again. "I can't imagine how awesome it'll be, when I can use all the Ancient tech like you can. Especially now that the Orcs can't find us, we'll have weeks just to explore and fix things. Months, if you want."
John blinked at him. Shock and hope were warring in his chest, which wasn't helping his lungs any but it really wasn't too bad. "You're staying?" It felt wrong to be so thrilled at the thought that maybe Rodney would.
Rodney blinked back at him. "Yes, I'm staying. Why wouldn't I stay?" His expression clouded. "Don't you want me to?"
"Of course I do!" John said it so vehemently that he winced again. "I mean, if you want to stay," he added, feeling embarrassed at his outburst. He tried to feign nonchalance. "I know you have a whole life back in that other universe. So if you want to go back, that's fine."
"John, I was in Siberia," Rodney said, staring at him. "The best I could hope for was being shipped back to what amounted to indentured servitude in the US instead of being locked in a gulag. Why the hell would I want to return to that when I've got an entire Ancient city to explore? And you?" he added, much more quietly. He yanked off his glasses and ducked his head while he cleaned the lenses with the cuff of his shirt. It didn't hide the blush that pinked his skin right to his ears. "That is, if it's not presumptuous to assume that you, um…"
"You want to explore me?" John asked, then laughed when Rodney's blush turned scarlet. Laughing hurt, but John didn't care. He waited until Rodney fumbled his glasses back on, then took Rodney's hand, threading their fingers together. "I'd like that." He smiled, but made his voice serious enough for Rodney to know he meant it. "I'm really glad you're here, Rodney. Thank you for bringing me home."
Rodney's lips spread into a surprised, delighted smile. "Really? Well, ah, me too. And you're welcome."
John laughed again. "I figured," he said, then leaned in and kissed him.
"Are you sure you should be doing this, Rodney?" Radek fretted. He checked the PPM (Mark 2) strapped to Rodney's back for what had to be the fiftieth time in the last three minutes. "What if the Orcs return while you're gone? We will have to phase, and you won't be able to come through the gate."
"I'm sure you can handle being interim Science Head for a few days if necessary, Radek," Rodney said.
"Just don't murder Kavanagh," John put in. He checked that the straps keeping the PPM on Rodney's back were straight and that his tac vest pockets were closed, mostly because it gave him an excuse to touch him. Rodney could tell, if his expression of fond annoyance was anything to go on.
"At least not until I can help you hide the body," Rodney added.
"You are a true friend, Rodney," Radek said. He patted Rodney's shoulder and stepped back with obvious reluctance. "Hopefully I will have sufficient patience to wait."
Elizabeth Weir had literally welcomed the alternate versions of her Rodney and Radek with open arms. But Kavanagh hadn't been thrilled about the brand–new, not–dead Rodney McKay stepping into the position of Head of Science the original McKay would've taken if he hadn't died. But even if this McKay had ultimately chosen a different career, Rodney knew he hadn't forgotten anything he'd learned about astrophysics and engineering. He'd also been studying Ancient tech in Siberia before he and John had met.
With the artificial ATA gene, Rodney had been able to get up to speed so quickly that sometimes it felt like he'd always been in Atlantis.
Radek stepped into the position of Rodney's second just as seamlessly. Kavanagh naturally loathed them both, and Elizabeth Weir for sanctioning it, and John for bridging the universes in the first place. But even he couldn't argue with the results.
One of which was the New Lantea Phase Module, which had allowed everyone in Atlantis to catch their breath and pick up the pieces of the city for the first time practically since they'd arrived in Pegasus. John had forgotten what it was like to not be exhausted and tense all the time. New Lantea had been out of phase with the rest of the universe for over two months, and some nights now John could sleep straight through without nightmares. It helped to wake up with Rodney's arms wrapped around him.
It also helped that Atlantis wasn't helpless anymore. She'd been repaired and recharged in the time out of phase, and now they had the portable versions of the Phase Module, which meant they could finally take the fight to the enemy instead of waiting to be found again. The M2s would keep the wearer invisible and intangible, except for the explosives they left behind or the bullets fired from their weapons. Anything out of range of the M2s would instantly snap into phase with the rest of the universe.
John's team would be able to walk among the Orcs like wraiths, and hit them hard without risking themselves at all.
Ronon and Teyla were just as excited as Rodney and John about the potential of the M2s. If this test run worked out, and John was sure it would, the Satedans would begin mass–producing Rodney's design.
It was a heady thought, and John couldn't wait to get out there and start taking their galaxy back.
"New Lantea coming out of phase in three… two… one…" Chuck spoke from the control room above. He hit some keys. "And we're back," he said, grinning.
"Sheppard, your team has a go," Weir said, smiling at all of them. "Be safe."
John gave her a nod and a little wave as the gate whooshed into blue existence behind him. Then he turned to his team. "You heard the lady. Let's go kick some Orc ass."
"Be safe," Radek said. He didn't sound quite as confident as Weir.
"Thanks, Radek. Really," Rodney said, and John could practically hear the eye–roll. "But we'll be fine. Do you think I'd be going out there if I thought our M2s wouldn't work? I'll see you in a few hours."
John nodded at Ronon, and Ronon went through the gate with a feral grin, followed by an exuberant Aiden and a grimly pleased Teyla. Rodney trotted up to John as he walked towards the wormhole's event horizon.
"Seriously," Rodney muttered. "It's like he wasn't there when we tested the things for three weeks straight. We'll be perfectly safe." He hesitated right in front of the rippling blue disk, looking at John. "We will be safe, right?"
John grinned at him. "Safe as houses, Rodney."
Rodney smiled back at him. "Yeah, we will," he said. He turned back to the wormhole and confidently strode through. John was right beside him.