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Can You Feel My Heart Beating?

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Sometimes Rodney’s heart pounded so fast and so loud that it drowned out the sensation of his soulmate’s heartbeat, but he always, always knew it was there. It was comforting, for the most part, feeling the gentle pulse against his skin from the cool gold of the simple ring he’d inherited from his grandmother. Sometimes it was distracting, so he took the ring off, set it aside, like when he was playing piano to a metronome - or when he was in bed with someone else.

Unlike Hollywood - and most of the population that slavishly believed movies and TV were reality - Rodney wasn’t starry-eyed about the romance of partner rings. He was under zero illusions that just because matched pairs found each other they’d have long lives of romantic bliss.

His parents were just twenty when they stumbled across each other, discovered that the rings they wore were tracking each other’s heartbeats, and their marriage had been long, loud, and bitter. And people wondered where Rodney got his loud tendencies from.

Rodney also didn’t believe that he had to wait his entire life in anxious, virginal anticipation for his One True Love to stumble into his arms and for them to be swallowed in the sound of their shared heartbeat as their bodies acknowledged the special bond between them. So he dated who he wanted, and he slept with who he wanted, and he endured Jeannie’s silent disapproving judgment much better (or so he thought) than she endured his disapproval and judgment after she refused to go on to grad school so she could marry an English major named Kaleb Miller whose partner ring had been pulsing her heartbeat ever since he put it on.

There were so many flaws in the partner system that Rodney didn’t know why anyone bothered with it at all, other than that partner rings were important heirlooms, expensive, and intriguing technology. (It was technology, not magic, and science was just getting to the point where it could begin to unravel that technology.) Whatever compatibility the rings sensed didn’t take into account the actual circumstances of someone’s upbringing, so two people who were partnered by their rings were in no way guaranteed to actually get along. Two people who did happen to get along would, sadly, have to work at it, just like ordinary, non-partnered people. Not everyone had a soulmate. Some people put the rings on and felt - nothing. Maybe because they had no soulmate at all, or their soulmate had died early, or the rings didn’t work for them.

There was a reason the rings were inherited, passed down through the generations. They only worked for some people, some bloodlines.

There were some myths that the rings always found their way back to their proper bloodlines, whether bartered, stolen, purchased, or given. Rodney wasn’t sure what to think of that.

Many married partners passed their rings on to their children when they were of courting age, and Jeannie had accepted Mom’s eagerly once she turned sixteen, but Rodney had refused Dad’s years before on principle, because soulmates and romance were irrational social constructs that had no bearing in science.

Best as science could tell, monogamy was detrimental to the human race.

Granted, Rodney wasn’t such a pure scientist that he refused exclusive dating relationships when they were offered (which was rare but did happen, thank you very much).

When his Grandma McKay died, she left her ring to him, and he accepted it. Not because he wanted to find his partner - her ring had gone dormant as soon as Grandpa McKay died - but because he wanted to study it, figure out how it worked.

He suspected it had to do with newly-discovered mirror particles, particles that responded to each other across vast distances, maybe even across whole planets or solar systems or galaxies. He wore it because that was the most practical way to keep it from being stolen by well-meaning or profiteering scientists who wanted to bring partner rings to the masses so true love wasn’t a luxury only the rich were afforded.

As soon as Rodney put the ring on, he sensed it activate. For one moment his entire being was flooded with the sound and sensation of his soulmate’s heartbeat, and then the sensation faded to just the soft pulsing of the ring against his skin, too subtle for anyone to see but enough for him to feel.

(When Rodney looked at it under a microscope, he could observe the pulsing of the metal there, which meant the ring worked even when he wasn’t wearing it.)

No one had been able to identify the substance that was mixed with gold to form partner rings, and so the stuff had ridiculous names, like Heaven’s Gold and Lovers’ Gold and Partner Platinum.

And then one day someone did identify the substance.

Naquadah.

No one outside of the Stargate Program knew about naquadah’s existence, but Rodney’s extensive research into the substance had made him a shoo-in for the program.

And then who cared about partners and soulmates? Because there was a whole galaxy to explore, a galaxy full of terrifying alien races and advanced technology, and Rodney wanted to learn about all of it.

Rodney wondered about his so-called soulmate sometimes, when he sensed the pulse change. He suspected his soulmate was some kind of fitness freak, because he sensed sustained pulse increases at the same time every day. Once a while those would change, but regular routines were quickly established after the shift.

Sometimes, late at night, when Rodney couldn’t sleep, he’d pull up the one video recording he had of the Stargate dialing and the wormhole initializing. Listening to some peon endlessly repeating the chevron encoded, chevron locked sequence was rather soporific, and he liked to watch the shimmer of the event horizon. It was soothing in a way only music had been for him when he was a child. He’d sit propped up against his pillows and watch the video over and over again until he fell asleep. Other than Stargate Command’s Major Samantha Carter, no one knew more about Stargates than Rodney McKay. One day he would figure out why the naquadah in partner rings allowed people to feel each other. He was sure it had to do with naquadah’s unique ability to sustain a stable Lorentzian wormhole.

One day he’d have the answer.

One day.

One day…

Rodney was jolted awake in sheer panic. At first he thought it was the base, Area 51 alarms going off, foothold situation, self-destruct countdown set, and then he realized.

It was his partner ring.

His soulmate, wherever he or she was, was having a panic attack, a heart attack, something.

Rodney lurched to his feet, stumbled across his room to the sink, splashed cold water on his face, forced himself to take deep breaths, because his heart was racing alongside his soulmate’s, and if he could calm himself, maybe his soulmate would calm too.

And after a while, it worked. Rodney sank back down on the edge of his bed and forced himself to keep taking deep breaths, in for four, out for four. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the heartbeat pulsing against his skin, and as he breathed, he felt it slow. Slow, slow, slow till he fell asleep.

That was another stupid flaw of the partner ring system. No way to identify who was on the other end, no way to save them if they were in trouble.

Rodney wasn’t heartless, though. He hoped his soulmate was all right.

But then he was summoned to Stargate Command itself, to work with the brilliant (and beautiful and utterly unavailable) Samantha Carter, and he forgot about the problem of identifying a soulmate through the partner rings.

Until he was banished to the frozen reaches of Siberia and was thrown out of his work in the middle of a delicate experiment because his soulmate was having a panic attack, a heart attack, was going to die. One moment Rodney was adjusting the dials on the spectrometer, the next he was on his ass on the floor, clutching his chest and panting.

The other scientists crowded around him.

“Rodney! What is the matter?” Zelenka spoke the most English.

Rodney gasped for breath. He wagged his right hand at Zelenka, because he refused to wear his ring on his left hand like some hopeful bachelorette.

The other scientists were panicking in Russian, as were the guards. Rodney couldn’t speak. He was trying to take deep breaths, but there was a band of iron around his lungs, and it was tightening. Medics arrived, and Rodney was bundled onto a gurney and rushed to the facility infirmary. Zelenka ran alongside him, clutching his right hand, completely oblivious to the message Rodney was trying to convey.

The oxygen mask the staff tried to fit him with didn’t work.  The cannula didn’t work. A jab of blood pressure meds didn’t work. A stab from an epi pen didn’t work. The doctors and nurses were all yelling at each other in Russian, Zelenka was yelling at them in broken Russian and also his own language, Rodney kept trying to shake Zelenka off to show them his partner ring.

It was a tiny nurse with ringlet curls and a white dress and hat like it was still the fifties who peeled Zelenka’s hand off of Rodney’s, pushed him aside, and plucked the ring off of Rodney’s finger.

And like that, he could breathe.

The other nurses and doctors stared in confusion as all of the panicked beeping from the monitors Rodney had been hooked up to ceased, as his oxygen levels returned to normal.

Rodney sucked in as many deep breaths as he could get, then had to remind himself to slow down and not hyperventilate. Zelenka stared at the little gold ring on the palm of the nurse’s hand.

“Your soulmate is in distress,” Zelenka said. “Why did you not say?”

“Because saying requires air and I couldn’t breathe,” Rodney snapped.

“Do you need to contact your soulmate, see if she is all right?” Zelenka’s expression was soft. Sympathetic.

Rodney snatched the ring back from the nurse, but he didn’t put it back on. He could feel it vibrating against his palm. “I don’t know who it is. We haven’t met yet.” And there was no guarantee that they ever would.

Possibly the biggest flaw in a deeply entrenched, romanticized system.

“I see.” Zelenka ducked his head, pushed his glasses higher on his nose. “I am glad you are all right, Rodney.”

And he ducked out of the infirmary.

Which was unfortunate, because he was Rodney’s only real linguistic link to the medical staff, who freaked out when he tried to unhook himself from the monitors and nearly had two thuggish orderlies try to tie him to the bed so they could feed him tasteless soup.

But the tiny nurse and Zelenka kept regarding him with sympathy after that. Zelenka was constantly asking if he was all right, and he bore with surprising patience the number of times Rodney snapped at him.

Rodney did his assigned work during the day, but after hours, he stayed in the lab, taking scrapings from his ring, running them through the XPS and LEIS and everything else the chemists would let him near. He had to figure out how the damn ring worked and how to figure out who his soulmate was, if only so he could get the person to stop being such a fitness freak and to - to take some meditation classes or something. Not that Rodney was one to talk about stress management skills.

It was a whole week before the tiny nurse let him put the ring back on.

Whoever his soulmate was, what routine he’d had was gone, broken. No more regular exercise periods. Just brief moments of stress followed by slow, dull heartbeats. Not sleeping. Something else. Boredom, maybe?

Zelenka happened upon Rodney one night when Rodney was trying to use the LEIS and one of the Russian scientists wanted it at the same time.

“What is going on here?”

“Tell Doctor Comrade over here that I got to the LEIS first and I have priority,” Rodney said, jabbing a finger at the furious ice-blonde woman who looked ready to claw his eyes out.

Zelenka frowned. “Why are you in the chemistry lab?”

“Doing research,” Rodney said.

“Into what? We are physicists.”

Rodney held up his right hand. “Partner rings are made of an alloy of gold and naquadah.”

Zelenka raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yes. I’m trying to do some research on the connections formed by partner rings and see if it’s at all related to naquadah’s ability to maintain a stable Lorentzian wormhole,” Rodney said.

Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose, then spoke to the other scientist, who snarled at him in Russian but stomped out of the lab, her lab coat flaring around her calves like a villain’s cape.

“I did not know that, about partner rings,” Zelenka said, “but then they are not in my family.”

“Naquadah’s classified. It’s not common knowledge. And the SGC and IOA don’t really care about the implications of partner rings because they’re stupid.” Rodney shook his head. “Everyone is so blissfully misinformed about partner rings.”

“If they do not guarantee true love or successful relationships, I do not see what the fuss is about, but a strong relationship is valuable,” Radek said. He peered at Rodney’s ring. “Stop ruining your ring. I know how we can acquire one that has no owner.”

“How?”

“Pawn shop.”

Pawning one’s partner ring was usually a sign that someone had given up on love or had no children to pass the ring on to. That was usually the moment in a rom-com when the hero or heroine was most at their low - and usually right before they met their actual soulmate.

“Are there pawn shops around here? Is there anything around here besides snow?” Rodney asked.

Zelenka sighed. “Yes, of course there is. Where do you suppose people go, after work?”

“Back to their bunks.”

“No, most of the scientists here live in town.”

Rodney and Zelenka never really got a chance to go into town and look for a ring at a pawn shop, though, because the call came from the SGC. They were being transferred to Antarctica to work on the Ancient outpost.

It would be just as cold as Siberia, but it would be perfect. The Ancient builders of the Stargates had to have been the origin of partner rings as well, since naquadah was not found natively on Earth. They had to have brought it with them. Rodney could finally get some answers.

*

Antarctica was even colder than Siberia. Even though the research base at White Rock was allegedly heated, it was cold all the time, and Rodney had to constantly wear his orange fleece pullover if he wanted to be comfortable enough to function. Rodney was glad Zelenka was on his research team, if only because he was familiar. He didn’t know British Guy or Japanese Girl nearly enough to trust them with much more than holding screws while he fixed things, but ostensibly he had to work with them. Scottish Guy was a geneticist of all things, trying to work up some kind of gene therapy to give more people the ATA gene so someone other than him could activate Ancient Technology.

He was terrified of using the Ancient Control Chair, which made him very useless indeed, but Rodney needed the Chair activated so he could get a sense of its power readings, map its networking system. German Guy was an expert in cybernetic neural networks, there to try to jerry-rig some kind of system so that Ancient tech could have a manual interface instead of just a mental one.

Rodney had been tested for the gene twice, to no avail. It took a lot of talking, but between him and German Guy (who also spoke fluent Japanese and English), they managed to talk Scottish Guy into the Chair.

Of course nothing happened, because Scottish Guy was afraid.

As soon as German Guy walked away, Scottish Guy was out of the Chair and fleeing. Before Rodney could chase him down, Weir was there, and she wanted to talk. Again. Rodney expressed his concerns over Scottish Guy’s sheer lack of professional courage, because without him, their research would go nowhere, and their only other option was General O’Neill, who was not available to sit around and be a human light switch.

“We could always test you a third time,” Weir said.

Rodney rolled his eyes. “That’s very funny.”

Rodney had never thought he’d be glad to see Daniel Jackson, but the man interrupted Weir before she could needle Rodney further about what she perceived as his jealousy of Scottish Guy’s having the Gene.

Of course Daniel Jackson had found it, the gate address to Atlantis. He’d figured out how to unlock the Stargate the first time. It was only poetic or something equally stupid that he would be the one to find the path to the Ancients’ home world, their seat of power, the Lost City of Atlantis.

They had to go.

If they were going to go prepared, they needed to know as much about Ancient tech as possible. And that meant the Chair.

Rodney bribed German Guy with the promise of the last of his private stash of beer, and German Guy helped him corral Scottish Guy into the chair.

“Dr. Schwarz,” Scottish Guy protested, but German Guy just saluted and walked away.

“Beckett,” Rodney said firmly, because contrary to popular opinion, he did know people’s names, if they were important, “this time, just try to picture an image of where we are in the solar system.”

Scottish Guy squeezed his eyes shut tight. “I think I feel something.” He opened his eyes. “It could be lunch-related.”

Rodney huffed. “Shut up and concentrate.”

That was when the drone went off, the one British Guy had been working on. It came to life, lit up and went zooming. The scientists all hit the deck. There was screaming. Soldiers dashed to and fro, their radios alive with chatter, because apparently the drone was trying to shoot down General O’Neill, who was incoming on a chopper.

Scottish Guy was hyperventilating. Weir dashed into the Chair room, and she tried to calm him down. Scottish Guy squeezed his eyes shut again, his entire body vibrating with effort, and then -

“I think I did it.”

One of the soldiers reported that the drone was incapacitated and General O’Neill was back on approach. Seven minutes out.

Rodney had to accompany Weir and Jackson to welcome O’Neill, which was mostly O’Neill being cranky at him (was he still sore over that whole Teal’c-in-the-gate incident?) and Jackson talking very fast, and it was all going well, Weir could talk O’Neill out of a ZPM to make the trip to Atlantis, but then Scottish Guy started hollering all over again.

For Weir.

Everyone followed her.

There, in the Chair, was a man, handsome, dark-haired, wearing an olive flight jumpsuit.

Major John Sheppard, according to the name tag on his uniform.

“I said don’t touch anything,” O’Neill snapped.

Major Sheppard protested, “I just sat down.”

Rodney stepped toward him. “Major, think about where we are in the solar system.”

And a three-dimensional hologram of the solar-system appeared above their heads.

Rodney’s pulse spiked, roared, louder than it ever had before, completely drowning out everything else, drowning out even his soulmate’s. Because this was it. This was the key. Major Sheppard was the key.

And then his heartbeat calmed, returned to normal. Beating in time with his soulmate’s.

Major Sheppard said, in a small voice, “Did I do that?”

*

Rodney felt bad for Major Sheppard, because as soon as everyone realized he could use Ancient tech with a thought, they pounced on him. Daniel Jackson was talking at a mile a minute, spilling out the entire history of the Ancients and Stargates from ten thousand years ago. Weir was asking him if he wanted to go to Atlantis. Scottish Guy was trying to get him to roll up his sleeve so he could take a blood sample.

O’Neill said, “Major, on your feet.”

Rodney had never before been grateful for the military tendency to obey orders unthinkingly, but Major Sheppard was on his feet and out of the Chair and stepping out of the babbling crowd.

O’Neill turned to the crowd. “Major Sheppard is an Air Force officer and, as such, is under my command.”

“This is a civilian research outpost,” Weir began.

“And yet Major Sheppard is still Major Sheppard. This is what’s going to happen to you, Major. Dr. Beckett here is going to draw a sample of your blood. Dr. Jackson is going to have exactly five minutes to brief you on the Stargate Program for which you now have clearance.”

Scottish Guy lit up. Jackson rolled his eyes and pursed his lips, unamused.

“And then Dr. Weir will have three minutes to ask you whether you want to step through a Stargate to an unknown place. After that, you and I have a flight to catch.” O’Neill clapped Major Sheppard on the shoulder and then walked away.

Rodney hung beside Major Sheppard while he submitted to having his blood drawn by Beckett, who assured him that unlike Jackson, Weir, and Rodney, he was a medical doctor and more than qualified to draw blood. Sheppard listened to Jackson explain in surprisingly concise, clear terms the history of the Stargate Program, the Ancients, and gate travel. Jackson managed to keep it all under five minutes, too. Then Weir was on Sheppard, talking about the Atlantis Expedition, the possibilities for discovery and new technology and gaining knowledge about the universe.

Sheppard was stuck on the fact that he was part alien and had magic blood and could light things up by practically sneezing.

“Rodney,” Beckett said, and how had he known Rodney’s name?

Rodney rarely remembered anyone’s names. What they were called was less important than what they could do. Sheppard was important, though. He could make any Ancient device work - so long as it still had power and wasn’t malfunctioning.

“With Major Sheppard’s blood, we may be able to engineer more effective gene therapy.” Beckett had no less than three vials of the stuff. He beamed at Rodney.

Sheppard refused a bandaid, shoved his sleeve down. “That’s - great. So you can turn more people into aliens?”

“Obviously the Ancients were close enough to humans that they could breed with us, pass their genes on to us,” Beckett said, and Sheppard looked disgusted at the thought.

Jackson said, “Ancients look indistinguishable from humans. In corporeal form.”

“Corporeal?” Sheppard echoed.

O’Neill patted him on the arm. “Time to go, Major.”

“Jack,” Jackson protested.

“Gotta go,” O’Neill drawled, and swept toward the elevator.

Sheppard followed, still looking a little dazed.

“See you tomorrow,” Rodney called after him.

Sheppard cast him a confused look.

“Thanks for being curious,” Rodney added.

Sheppard smiled for a moment, and then O’Neill barked an order and Sheppard hopped onto the elevator beside him.

Major John Sheppard had a beautiful smile.

*

John Sheppard was kind of a liability, because his smile - and the shape of his ears and his stupid spiky hair and the way he asked actual intelligent questions - made Rodney’s heart beat erratically, out of time with the pulse in his partner ring, so Rodney was constantly distracted. He had to take the damn ring off till he could get himself under control.

After about a week of working with Sheppard, though, Rodney was able to be professional, was pretty well immune to Sheppard’s charms.

“What’s this one do?” John leaned on the workbench beside Rodney and peered hopefully at the device some of the less hamfisted Marines had pulled out of the ice yesterday.

“We will find out as soon as you activate it,” Rodney said. His voice came out calm, steady, professional, not at all as excited as John seemed to be.

John stretched a hand out over the device, furrowed his brow.

Rodney kept his hands on his laptop keyboard, prepared to record readings as soon as John got the device working. He could wear his partner ring again, and its calm, steady heartbeat was kind of soothing. Almost happy.

John, Rodney noticed, wore a wedding ring, a plain gold band. He never mentioned his wife or how she felt about him being stationed out in the middle of nowhere, and while Rodney was not a supporter of the concept that ignorance was bliss, he didn’t ask about it.

John waved his hand back and forth over the device, which was about the size of an American dollar coin, in the same silver-and-blue motif as The Chair, circular.

He shook his head. “I think it’s some kind of...night light, maybe? But it doesn’t have enough power to initiate.”

“Wait, you’ve started?”

“You said to initiate it,” John said.

“But I need to record this. Shut it off, let me start the recording, and we’ll start again.” Rodney swatted at John’s hand.

John snatched his hand away, raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Sorry, McKay. You didn’t say when.”

“I said we were recording this,” Rodney pointed out. “Did you turn it off?”

“It won’t turn on in the first place,” John said. “No power, remember?”

“Then how do you know what it is?”

“I don’t know exactly, but I can feel the gist of its purpose. You ready?”

“On three,” Rodney said, and counted them in, hit the record button. “Major Sheppard, what is the device?”

“I suspect some kind of night light, but it doesn’t have enough power to fully initiate,” John recited obediently. His tone was perfectly calm and polite, but his smirk was absolutely sly and amused.

“How do you know what it is?” Rodney asked, his tone equally calm and polite.

John’s expression turned introspective. “It’s - you know how someone asks you if you know someone, and their name is unfamiliar, but then they start to describe him and then you can kind of picture his face in your mind?”

“Yes.”

“It’s like that, but it’s also like when someone asks for a word or something, you know, what’s the word for the guy who drops the bombs out of a B-52 , and you know the word, would have known it if they hadn’t asked for it, it’s just beyond the tip of your tongue,” John said.

Rodney blinked. “That was very - informative and thorough. Thank you, Major Sheppard.”

John also blinked, surprised. “You’re welcome, Dr. McKay.”

Rodney stopped the recording. “So, when you connect with a device, can you feel it?”

John wet his lips, gazing upward as he thought.

Rodney’s pulse jumped, and he felt the pulse in his partner ring as a counterpoint before his own pulse settled. Damn John Sheppard’s pretty mouth.

“Well,” John said, “have you ever heard something soft and low and kind of whisper-y that makes your scalp tingle?”

Rodney nodded.

“It’s kind of like that. When I reach out to a piece of Ancient Tech, it’s a sound I can’t quite hear, and then when I strain and listen for it, then I feel it.” John shrugged. “I mean, that’s as close as I can describe it. Making a piece of tech work with my brain is something I’ve never done before. It’s weird. I’m part alien, and I can make stuff work with my brain. Although it’s kind of like a limb too, right? You think and your body moves. But the tech isn’t part of you and -” He trailed off.

Rodney smiled at him tentatively. “You’re very thorough and precise. I appreciate it. Science appreciates it.”

“I try,” John drawled. Then he peeked into the box of other devices, eyes alight. “Which one next?”

*

Rodney supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised that John ended up spending most of his spare time with German Guy (Dr. Schwarz) and British Guy (Dr. Grodin), because of all the scientists, they were the most socially savvy. Also John had apparently been stationed in both England and Germany in his career, so they had things to talk about.

Also Schwarz was the best-looking man on base (second to John and that one dark-skinned Marine who also looked all of twelve, but soldiers were off limits, or so Rodney had to constantly remind himself). He had long, wild red hair that he tied back with an atrociously bright yellow bandana, bright cat-green eyes, and a lazy, sensuous grin. Rodney deeply suspected the man was sleeping with pretty much anyone who’d have him, as Rodney had seen him come strolling down the corridor in the scientists’ living section in the same clothes he’d been wearing the day before, only rumpled and disheveled. He’d also seen the way Schwarz winked at some of the soldiers as he passed, seen the way they went pale or blushed.

Rodney had also seen the way Schwarz would rest his chin on his hand and lean toward John during conversations in the cafeteria, the way he’d sprawl out and let his legs tangle with John’s, the way he smiled, a brief, wicked gleam of teeth while John attempted his broken German.

As it turned out, John had also once been stationed in Japan, and his Japanese was much better, which led to him talking to Japanese Girl (Dr. Kusanagi) when he wasn’t initiating things for Rodney in the lab.

Apart from working with Rodney in the lab, John was always needed elsewhere, either submitting to more random blood samples for Beckett, or helping Schwarz describe this one beer garden in Berlin that had the best microbrews, or siding with Kusanagi against Grodin over who had the best food, the Japanese or the English.

Apart from the fact that Rodney was horribly jealous that John spent his spare time with practically every other scientist at White Rock, the entire situation was weird, and it took a while for Rodney to figure out why.

Because none of the other soldiers spent time with the scientists. The Marines were pretty obedient about fetching and carrying whenever Rodney asked, and the other Air Force pilots were polite about making deliveries to the base, but none of them talked to the scientists like John did.

He didn’t just talk, though. He was nice. And not in that earnest, currying favor kind of way that some younger officers were. John was still officially on the hook to fly chopper transports back and forth across the ice, but apparently he’d had a lot of downtime with that duty, so he could spend all his spare time at White Rock with the scientists until he was called up for a flight. Whenever he came back from a run across the ice, it was with treats. None of the Marines at McMurdo liked this type of candy, so they gave him a case; did the scientists want any? This DVD had made the rounds at McMurdo about a dozen times; did the scientists what to do some kind of media swap?

And sometimes it was as simple as a cup of coffee for whoever happened to meet John at the security checkpoint.

Rodney was shameless enough that he rigged his laptop so it intercepted the soldiers’ radio chatter, so he knew whenever John was coming in on a run, and he could be the one to meet John at the checkpoint. Granted, that was less for the coffee - admittedly it was better than the coffee at White Rock - and more for getting John to himself, at least for a little bit.

Rodney was even shameless enough to schedule John all to himself for a whole day while he worked on diagnostics for The Chair.

“All day?” John asked while he walked beside Rodney, headed toward the lab.

“Tomorrow, yes. I’m running a full diagnostic on The Chair and will need you to keep it awake the entire time, if not actually engaging in systems,” Rodney said. “Unless you have something better to do?”

“Tomorrow’s supposed to be clear blue skies,” John said, and sometimes Rodney forgot that John was a pilot, that his heart belonged first and foremost to the skies (and possibly God and country after that, and Rodney didn’t want to think too much about that). “But I’m also not scheduled for any huge transport runs, so sure, I’ll be your lightswitch for a day. Is it going to be boring?”

“Working with me is boring?”

“You get - focused,” John said. “If I’m just going to be sitting in the Chair all day, can I bring a book or something?”

“Sure,” Rodney said, because he was curious about the types of books John Sheppard might read. Someone’s taste in reading material said a lot about them.

The next day, John showed up not with a book but an acoustic guitar, an old, battered, beat-up thing with the polish flaking off in spots and some dents along the edges.

John handed Rodney a spare cup of coffee, then plopped himself down in The Chair, which promptly initiated.

“Good morning,” Rodney said.

“Morning,” John drawled.

Rodney took a sip of the coffee. It was just how he liked it. “Thank you,” he said to John, because he could be polite, no matter what the others said. He was sure John had heard their talk. Rodney cared about his reputation very much, and he knew he’d have to make some effort to rehabilitate John’s view of him, knowing how dim it was likely to be.

But John was focused on tuning his guitar. The strap was old worn leather, had had some kind of design worked into it a long time ago, but it was faded with age. “What kind of music do you like?”

Rodney had grown up listening to classical music because it was what he’d played on the piano, and it was the only type of music his entire family had been able to agree on. “Whatever you choose is fine.”

“Are you sure about that?” John tested a chord, set to tuning another string. “Because I pretty much stick with the Man In Black.”

“Never heard of him.” Rodney remembered, belatedly, to set the data recorder running. He should have done it as soon as John sat down and initiated the chair.

John lifted his head sharply. “You’ve never heard of Johnny Cash?”

“Johnny Cash I’ve heard of,” Rodney said. “I don’t keep track of all the man’s aliases.”

John eyed Rodney. “What was the last song you listened to?”

“Tchaikovsky’s Opus 20, Act II, No. 13, allegro moderato.” He said it with a hint of mulishness in his voice, because he’d rather be stubborn than embarrassed.

But then John plucked its familiar melody, what was popularly known as Dance of the Little Swans or, as Rodney had learned from Jeannie’s brief childhood stint in ballet, the pas de quatre.

“You know classical music,” Rodney said and immediately cringed, because nothing irritated him more than when people stated the obvious.

“Had to justify my guitar habit to my parents somehow.” John switched over to the main Swan Lake theme that most people recognized.

“That’s fine,” Rodney said. “Though you may have to stop playing when you initiate some of the Chair’s other systems.”

“Sure,” John said easily. And he kept on playing. Familiar classical themes - Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Scheherazade, the 1812 Overture, Finlandia - that had carried Rodney through some of the darkest parts of his childhood.

It was like he’d opened up Rodney’s heart and plucked the strings there, found the old melodies that had been gathering dust since that last fateful recital when Rodney was twelve, when Grandma McKay had died, when he’d first put on that ring and felt his soulmate’s heartbeat.

John Sheppard’s hands weren’t particularly beautiful, were plain and a bit slender for a man, blunt-fingered, but Rodney loved them anyway. John looked content as he sat there and played, his features soft and worry-free.

For several moments, Rodney’s heartbeat matched his soulmate’s.

Then his laptop beeped, and he scrambled to check it. He’d been staring at John for too long.

John paused. “Everything all right?”

“Yes, just an incoming instant message from that one guy.”

“Which one guy?” John looked amused.

Rodney knew his coworkers’ names, he really did. “British Guy.”

“Peter?”

Rodney lifted his head. “The moron with the ponytail and glasses?” He was American.

“That’s Kavanagh. His first name is also Peter. You’re thinking of Grodin.”

Was he? Rodney squinted at his laptop some more, typed back a busy right now. “Yes, Grodin. How are you feeling, Major?”

“Fine,” John said, straightening up, wary. “Should I be feeling something else?”

“No,” Rodney said quickly. “Just wanted to make sure. Power levels are holding. Now, can you initiate the holomap?”

It appeared above their heads.

There was an uptick in power usage on the data readout. Rodney made a note about the program John had initiated.

“Thank you. Shut it down. Now, can you access the drone control system? Without setting off a drone, please.”

The map vanished. “Those squishy jellyfish missiles?” John was still playing his guitar.

Rodney wanted to hate him for how effortlessly he used Ancient tech. “We’ll go with that.”

There was another spike on the data readout screen, significantly higher than before. Rodney made a note.

They spent the rest of the day cataloguing the power requirements for every system the Chair controlled. Rodney had John move through a list of systems based on increasing estimated power requirements, but some systems (like the environmental sensors) took less energy than predicted, and others took far more (like the Chair’s personal shield system that no one had known even existed). John even identified some additional systems that might shut down the current power grid but that they could try when they had another ZPM to hand. Dr. Kusanagi brought them lunch, paused to chat with John. Dr. Grodin brought them dinner; he’d initially been hesitant, hedging about how he was busy, but when Rodney said it was for John as well he’d been more than willing.

Rodney tried to ignore the little stab of jealousy he felt when he saw that message.

John’s knowledge of classical music was borderline encyclopedic, but eventually he ran out and switched to other songs.

“That’s pretty,” Rodney had remarked while they were testing the environmental controls.

“It’s Metallica,” John said. “Song’s called Nothing Else Matters.”

At Rodney’s raised eyebrows, John said, “Classical music and metal music have a surprising amount in common, compositionally.”

And then John played pretty, ornate acoustic guitar covers of popular rock and metal songs that Rodney had never heard of, wouldn’t have recognized the original versions of. Do you like this one? he’d ask, and Rodney would pause his work, listen.

For Rodney, John played Metallica, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, Pink Floyd, U2, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Guns’n’Roses, the Eagles, Journey, and Kansas.

“You know I’m never going to recognize the real versions of these songs,” Rodney protested. “Let alone remember the band or song names.”

John rolled his eyes. “There’s not going to be a test.”

Finally, Rodney had taken all the measurements he could. It was long past when he’d usually go to bed. John didn’t seem at all tired, kept on talking and playing, would occasionally get up to shake himself out, stretch a bit. He hadn’t been called for a flight all day, had ignored radio chatter from the other soldiers. Rodney wanted to keep John all to himself.

Finally he said, “Play me your favorite Johnny Cash song.”

John considered for a long moment. “That’s a hard call.” He tested a chord, shook his head, switched to another, shook his head again, tried a riff. “The thing about Johnny Cash is that some of the best songs by him weren’t actually by him originally.”

“Such as?”

“Well, Hurt was originally by Nine Inch Nails. Solitary Man was originally by Neil Diamond. It Ain’t Me Babe was originally by Bob Dylan.”

“I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t told me,” Rodney admitted.

“True,” John said. He started to play a slow, twanging, minor, almost atonal riff, and began to sing.

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real

The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

Rodney couldn’t help but flick a glance at the omnipresent black band around John’s right wrist.

John continued to strum, to sing. His voice was clear, on key, not particularly pretty, but the sound of it lodged behind Rodney’s breastbone and swelled, made it hard to breathe.

When the song ended, the last note hung in the air with the finality of a door closing.

“That - hurt,” Rodney said finally.

“Well, that is the name of the song.” John set his guitar aside, stretched. “Anything else I can do for you, besides sing?”

There was nothing else Rodney could ask him to do. “No. Thank you.”

John hopped to his feet, stretched again. His uniform top rode up just a smidge, but he was wearing a black t-shirt underneath. “Well, I am the Walking Gene.”

“Not just for using your Jedi mind tricks,” Rodney said. “Thanks for - you know. Music.”

John’s smile was sudden, surprised, and incredibly sweet. “You’re welcome. G’night, McKay. See you tomorrow.”

And then he was gone, strolling away at surprising speed.

Dammit. Rodney was full-on in love with him.

So many years of trying to date, decades of wearing a partner ring and feeling his soulmate’s heartbeat, and he fell in love with a wild-haired chopper pilot who was probably married.

Well, Rodney had done hard things before. He could do hard things again. He could be in love with someone who’d never love him back.

*

Once the SGC gave the green light for the Atlantis Expedition, everyone on Dr. Weir’s shortlist to go through the gate - Rodney had never been through the gate to another planet before, let alone to another galaxy - was shipped back Stateside to the SGC to prepare.

Ernest Littlefield’s first trip through the gate decades before had almost been a one-way trip, one he hadn’t been prepared for.

Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson’s first trip through the gate had also almost been a one-way trip, was a borderline suicide mission, but they’d gone through better-prepared, with tents and weapons and food and other survival supplies.

Given the massive power requirements to dial the gate to Atlantis, which was in another galaxy, there was a chance they wouldn’t be able to dial back to Earth until they located another power source. Since Atlantis was the home world (throne world?) of the Ancients, it was theoretically littered with ZPMs, but there was every chance that in the last ten thousand years the Ancients had moved on from Atlantis to bigger and better things. The SGC needed to staff an expedition with enough people and supplies to establish some kind of self-sustaining colony. It was like every bad scifi movie ever, putting a bunch of people on a ship and sending them into the great unknown. They needed genetic diversity, talent diversity, and a lot of supplies that could perform multiple functions.

The Atlantis Expedition was officially under the ambit of the IOA, so it was going to be led by a civilian, Dr. Weir, and it was going to be heavier on civilian personnel than any other large mission through the gate, but due to the SGC’s experience with violent dangers in the wider universe, there would be a sizeable contingent of military personnel. The SGC got to choose its personnel, and General O’Neill selected Colonel Marshall Sumner, who was a Marine, and most of Sumner’s selected troops were Marines.

It would take a blind, deaf, insensate person to be oblivious to the fact that Sumner hated John. John was officially not in the chain of command, was going along pretty much as the Walking Gene, which Rodney didn’t mind, because as Chief Science Officer and the foremost expert on Ancient technology (after Samantha Carter, who was staying on Earth with SG-1), he could have first pick of John’s time and attention.

Sumner’s second-in-command was Aiden Ford, an energetic young lieutenant who, like so many SGC personnel, had a tenuous relationship with scientists at best.

Not everyone could be Samantha Carter, soldier and scientist all in one. Who knew how much better a scientist she’d be, if her focus weren’t split between her calculator and her gun.

Rodney spent most of his time in meetings with Weir, Sumner, O’Neill, Jackson, Carter, and IOA talking heads, hashing out personnel lists. At least a dozen countries were to be included in the expedition, most of them in the way of civilian science personnel, though Sumner was willing to entertain military personnel from NATO allies. As much as it pained Rodney to admit it, they’d probably need a linguist on hand even though English was the lingua franca for scientists and NATO.

O’Neill was concerned that Sumner wasn’t bringing any field-grade officers with him or higher-ranked company-grade officers, whatever that meant. Sumner grumbled something about respecting the chain of command and insisted that Ford was a fine officer. Elizabeth tried to lighten the mood by suggesting that they bring ample supplies of chocolate, since that was a tried and true method of establishing diplomatic ties with aliens.

Rodney conceded that they might need to bring a botanist so they could establish food supplies, and could they bring their own coffee plant? Because coffee was a necessity. He was surprised when Sumner sided with him on that, but judging by O’Neill’s comments, there were stereotypes about Marines and coffee.

By the end of most days, Rodney was wrung out, because he didn’t really like working with people, but this was his dream, to discover something new, to expand humanity’s knowledge of the workings of the universe by leaps and bounds. He was going to go to another galaxy to the fabled city that was the seat of technology above and beyond what most people could even dream of. But he went and sought out John anyway, who was usually in the lab initiating things for Kusanagi and Zelenka, Kavanagh and Grodin, Schwarz and Bill Lee.

At supper one night, while John and Rodney were playing checkers on someone’s old chessboard with pennies and dimes as their pieces, Rodney said,

“How is your wife going to feel about you making a potential one-way trip?”

John, about to king one of his pennies, raised his eyebrows. “What wife?”

Rodney frowned. “Aren’t you married?”

John snorted. “Not anymore. She served papers on me before I shipped out to my previous duty station.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not.”

“But you still wear your wedding ring?”

John glanced down at his left hand. “No, not a wedding ring. Well, yes a wedding ring, but not mine. My grandfather’s. It’s a partner ring. He gave it to my mother, and she wore it as a thumb ring. When she died, it came to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Rodney said again, reflexively.

“It was a long time ago.” John kinged his penny, then sipped some of his coffee, eyeing Rodney over the rim of his mug.

Rodney felt his pulse jump, felt his soulmate’s pulse jump too, or maybe they were just out of step again because Rodney was in love with someone who wasn’t his soulmate. He’d dated plenty of people who weren’t his soulmate, slept with plenty more (because sex was a fantastic stress relief during finals and thesis defenses), but he’d never been quite in love with anyone like he was with John Sheppard.

“Who’s your soulmate?” Rodney asked, hoping for casual and probably failing.

“Not my ex-wife,” John said, snorting. He glanced at Rodney’s right hand, where he wore his own partner ring. “Who’s yours?”

“No idea.”

John huffed. “System’s kinda pointless, isn’t it?”

“A genetic aberration,” Rodney agreed. His pulse was all jumpy, as was his soulmate’s. “The rings are interesting, though. Their alloy contains naquadah.”

“Like the stuff for the generators?” Curiosity sparked in John’s eyes.

“Also what stargates are made out of.”

“Interesting,” John murmured. He was murdering Rodney at checkers. But then he was a soldier. Weren’t soldiers required to be skilled at strategy games? “Do you know how the rings work, then?”

“That’s still a mystery. We have bigger fish to fry. Snakes. Aliens. Whatever.”

John nodded. “Too true.”

John beat Rodney soundly for two straight games while they ate. Rodney would have to rethink his strategy the next time he played - and not underestimate John’s intelligence, because in addition to a near-encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, he had excellent spatial reasoning skills. Those were probably a necessity for a pilot.

After that, John departed, headed for the little apartment in town that the SGC had leased for him. Rodney had a similar apartment, but more often than not he slept on the emergency cot in Physics Lab 2.

John Sheppard was unmarried.

Maybe Rodney had a chance with him. Except John was in the military, and the chances of him swinging Rodney’s way were slim to none.

That didn’t stop Rodney from falling asleep to his soulmate’s slow and steady heartbeat and wishing it belonged to John.

*

It took Rodney several weeks before he realized - there was a damn good chance John might swing his way, at least part time, because even though he’d once been married to a woman, Rodney saw the way he looked at some of the other men on base. Most people wouldn’t know what to look for, but Rodney saw how John’s gaze lingered on the line of Ford’s shoulders once when he stepped out of the gym slinging a towel around his neck. John studied another random uniformed soldier for just a bit too long in the cafeteria one day, a man with broad shoulders and bright blue eyes and a dimpled smile. And when Dr. Schwarz leaned over John, one hand on his shoulder, bent down close enough to whisper in his ear - or kiss him - John seemed completely unbothered.

And maybe it was just Rodney’s imagination, but John tended to stand very close to him too.

The closer the departure date came, the more Rodney had the terribly selfish hope that going to Atlantis would be a one-way trip - at least for a while. A long enough while that the Expedition became its own entity, an insular culture, where survival mattered more than old things like stupid military rules, like don’t ask don’t tell.

And then Atlantis was a one-way trip.

The City was underwater and almost out of power. The Pegasus Galaxy was populated by Space Vampires who literally sucked the life out of you. And then Atlantis was crowded with refugees consisting of children, old men, and Xena Warrior Princess who wouldn’t look Rodney’s way once but who looked John’s way a whole lot (and plenty of men, including John, looked her way too).

Only John wasn’t Rodney’s Walking Gene, wasn’t keeping him company in the lab. John was the new ranking military officer because space vampires had killed Colonel Sumner and he was arranging gate teams and security patrols and going on insane rescues.

John was beautiful and heroic and, best as Rodney could tell, alone. He slept about as much as Rodney did, which was very little at all, and he was pale, quiet, withdrawn, a stranger. The stereotypical laconic, tough guy soldier. Reckless. Harboring a death wish.

Rodney must have been harboring a death wish right alongside him, because he agreed to be on John’s gate team. It made sense: the best soldier, the second-best soldier, the best scientist, and the best Pegasus native they could find on the frontline first contact team.  Rodney was the best at what he did, preferred to surround himself by the best, because he wanted to succeed. The survival of the expedition depended on the team’s success. Learning about the rest of the universe depended on the team’s success. If Rodney wanted to be worthy of a Nobel Prize, if he wanted to carry human knowledge further than any other person before him, he had to be on the best team.

And apparently he had to be alone.

As it turned out, partner rings worked across galaxies. It wasn’t until after the madness of that first several days that Rodney realized he could still feel his soulmate’s heartbeat, slowing and gentling with his, helping lull him to sleep.

Soon after that, Rodney’s soulmate was back to his (or her, but Rodney deeply suspected his) old shenanigans: early wake-ups, vigorous exercise, a thorough cooldown, and likely cleaning the pipes in the shower.

Rodney loved John, and he did his best for the team, and he fell asleep to his soulmate’s heartbeat at night. Some things never changed.

*

Rodney’s mind was filled with every single swear word he knew in every language he knew. Sure, he’d worked at the SGC before. Sure, his work had occasionally meant life or death. He’d never had to deal with this, though. Someone he knew, someone he cared about, dying right before his eyes.

John was slumped on the floor of the puddle-jumper, an alien vampire insect clamped to his throat, literally sucking the life out of him (an evolutionary ancestor to the Wraith, the space vampires). The jumper was stuck in the gate, unmoving. Rodney was fumbling with the jumper’s control panels, because fuck if the Ancients designed anything intuitively. They couldn’t put John in suspended animation in the event horizon because the bug freaked out in water and the event horizon was all water.

John said, “Hit me with the defibrillator.”

The conversation that followed was fast, frantic, and totally insane. The plan was to stop John’s heart with the AED, yank the bug off him, and then restart his heart.

None of them were medical doctors. There was no guarantee they could restart his heart even if they were.

Rodney scrambled to open the bulkhead doors so Teyla could take John through the gate once his heart was stopped, if they didn’t manage to restart his heart. Teyla and Ford lay John flat on the floor, and Teyla cut John’s shirt open. There was some confusion about John’s tags, because those were metal, they had to get those out of the way.

Rodney’s pulse roared in his ears.

His soulmate’s pulse roared in his skull.

Beckett barked instructions through the radio.

Ford smeared jelly on the AED paddles, shouted clear just like they did on TV.

For one moment, Rodney’s entire being was subsumed in the deafening joint heartbeat of himself and his soulmate.

Ford leaned over John, pressed the paddles to his chest. Hesitated.

John shouted, “Do it!”

Ford obeyed.

John’s entire body jolted, then fell back.

Ford pressed his fingers to John’s neck, was talking, but Rodney didn’t hear a thing.

The joint heartbeat ceased.

Then Rodney’s heartbeat restarted.

Teyla tugged on the bug. “It won’t come off.”

Beckett’s voice crackled over the radio. “Settle. It may take a moment.”

Rodney’s soulmate’s heartbeat didn’t restart.

Elizabeth asked, “Lieutenant?”

Rodney’s soulmate’s heartbeat didn’t restart.

Teyla tugged again, and the bug detached. She flung it onto the bench, and Ford was shooting at it, but Rodney barely heard the gunshots above the deafening silence of his soulmate’s heartbeat’s absence.

Ford prepped the paddles again, yelled Clear!

John’s body jolted.

Ford pressed his fingers to John’s throat.

Rodney’s soulmate’s heartbeat didn’t restart.

“Nothing?” Teyla asked.

They had to send John into the event horizon to preserve him till the medical team could get to him. Teyla carried him into the water, and then there was more panic, because the jumper was still stuck in the gate. The radio chatter was relentless, a countdown of less and less time - for John, for Rodney, for Teyla, for Ford, for the two morons up front who’d had the misfortune of being gene-carrying pilots.

Rodney answered the others’ queries and warnings and stupidity over the radio on autopilot, because all he could hear was the nothing where his soulmate’s heartbeat was supposed to be.

It was sheer luck, that he found the circuit to retract the drive pods that had kept the jumper stuck in the gate.

Somehow, it was Kavanagh who figured out what to do so they could live.

Ford was brave, was heroic, sent Rodney into the event horizon, blew the rear hatch to push the jumper forward and risked spacing himself.

When the jumper landed in the gate room, there was applause, Ford was still alive, but Rodney didn’t give a damn. What mattered was John.

“Well done, Rodney,” Elizabeth said.

“We’ll see.” Rodney headed to where Beckett and medics were working on John in the aft compartment of the jumper, shocking him over and over again, using an air bag on him to keep him breathing.

Beckett said, “We’ve got a pulse.”

Rodney already knew that, because his soulmate’s heartbeat started again.

*

Rodney stuck around the infirmary after Weir and the rest of the team left. John was supposed to be resting, looked like he was dozing, but he was too still. Rodney knew that false stillness, trying too hard to relax and instead being stuck in endless restlessness.

Finally John opened his eyes. “You wouldn’t happen to have a chess set or something, would you?”

“Not me personally, but there are a couple of community boards.”

“You better at chess than you are at checkers?” John asked.

“Yes.” Rodney had always preferred chess over checkers.

“I hope so, for your sake.” John huffed, amused.

Rodney said, “Your idea was brilliant, you know.” He leaned in, lowered his voice. “Stopping your heart so the bug would let go. We know little about the Wraith, but you figured out what was important.”

“I try,” John drawled.

“Your idea was brilliant - and insane. Is it a soldier thing? Picking the solution with death as the endgame?”

“I’m an airman,” John said, and he sat up straighter, eyes narrowing. “And you’re not really one to talk, seeing as how you used an Ancient device you knew nothing about and walked right into an animate shadow that was straight out of Lovecraft.”

“I’m a genius. I knew what I was doing.” Rodney was so bad at this. Yes, the infirmary was quiet, there was hardly anyone around, he knew John sometimes looked at other men. But John had never looked at him like that. Rodney wasn’t so brave that he could just say the words. He’d never been good with words. Yes, he could babble endlessly, but -

“We’re in an alien galaxy.” John pushed himself into a sitting position, leaned in and lowered his voice even more. “None of us knows what we’re doing.”

“I know that you need to take better care of yourself, because when your heart stops, so does mine,” Rodney said. He reached out, rested his hand on the blanket next to John’s.

John’s eyes went wide, and then he looked down, looked at their hands side by side, both of them adorned with plain old metal rings.

“Rodney?” John asked.

Rodney nodded tightly, unable to speak.

John reached out, curled his hand through Rodney’s.

As soon as their hands connected, the rest of the world fell away.

Rodney closed his eyes and was swallowed in the sound of two heartbeats stuttering, slowing, steadying. Becoming one. When he opened his eyes, John was looking at him, eyes dark and solemn.

Rodney smiled weakly. “Just so you understand. Be careful from now on.” He went to stand up, but John’s hand tightened on his.

“Stay.”

“Right now?”

“Always,” John said, tugged him close, and kissed him.

Rodney kissed him back and listened to their heartbeat.