So many worlds looked like parts of Canada, with tall pines stretching up into the sky as far as the eye could see. Rodney had remarked on this to the botanists but there was a plausible explanation when he considered the terra-forming abilities of the Ancients. He wondered how many of those worlds had been uninhabitable before the Ancients came across them and seeded them with fauna and flora similar to that found on Earth. A few million years was enough to allow for some diversification, or specialism, but nature had a way of retaining things that worked. Like pine trees. At least that was his theory, and it seemed to work for all but a few worlds.
This world was the same as most but the ground and even the trees looked parched, as if it hadn't rained in months. According to the Ancient database they had arrived during the dry season, which suited Rodney because ever since being caught in a flash flood and ending up with a parasite in his brain, he had disliked getting wet. The only exception was his hot tub, which he had upgraded to an even larger size shortly after heading back to Pegasus on Atlantis. He had wanted a tub big enough to share except things hadn't gone the way he had imagined.
Jennifer had opted to stay behind on Earth, deciding she had lived in a 'war zone' long enough and wanted to concentrate on her research instead of on 'doctoring'. She was disappointed when he refused to stay behind with her. Perhaps in that alternate universe John had mentioned he had felt enough righteous fury against the military to appease the loss of a dream come true - of being on Atlantis - but in this timeline he had no intention of giving up that dream so quickly. He couldn't make her understand, or if Teyla was right then maybe Jennifer had understood all too well that Atlantis was more important to him than even their relationship. Yet he shouldn't have had to be the one to choose, or be considered the bad guy just because he was unwilling to give up his dreams so she could follow hers. They had both made their own choice after all; he had chosen Atlantis and she had wanted Earth.
He had almost succumbed to the emotional blackmail - the if you truly love me then you'd stay on Earth with me - until he used John as a sounding wall. John always listened but said very little, especially if it was about relationships, and just pulled that weird face and asked, 'But what do you want?"
The first word that sprung into his head was... YOU... and wasn't that a shocker that stunned him to silence for more than a few heart beats. Not that he was unfamiliar with an attraction to other men but he thought that was something he had left behind in the experimentation days of his youth.
Rodney turned the 'blackmail' around on Jennifer and they both realized they could love each other without necessarily being in love, that what they had was a strong bond of friendship constructed on the battle grounds of Pegasus, forged through hardship and adversity. So at least they parted as friends, and the last communication from Jennifer had mentioned she was seeing someone new. He didn't begrudge her replacing him so quickly, realizing he didn't miss Jennifer half as much as he thought he might miss her, especially now he knew what, or rather whom he truly wanted.
His team and colleagues filled the holes left behind after Atlantis returned to Pegasus. He met them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for chess games and movie nights, and he and John still raced cars through the less frequented corridors, or had a few beers out on the south pier. It felt awkward at first but, fortunately, he knew how to keep secrets Eventually they fell back into their old routines, and he liked those times with John most of all. Sitting with the city lit up behind them and a six-pack next to them, or lying back and staring up into unfamiliar starry skies in Pegasus. It reminded him his first love had always been the stars, but he loved them more just for sharing them with John, even when John made up stupid constellation names just to rile him.
Thinking of beer reminded him of the dry heat and parched land, so he reached for his canteen to take sip of water.
"How far is the village?" Rodney asked again, because he felt as if they had already walked for miles, mostly uphill, or so it seemed.
"It is not much further, Rodney. We should be able to see the village from the top of the next ridge," Teyla replied with just a small touch of reproach in her voice.
"Yeah, so suck it up, McKay," Ronon growled.
"Great, I see you learned more colloquialisms during our prolonged stay on Earth," Rodney replied sarcastically but Ronon just grinned in response while John smirked.
Rodney sighed heavily, shifting his backpack and pulling his damp t-shirt from where it was sticking to his heavily perspiring body, thankful for the cooler breeze that was starting to pick up. Perhaps a little rain wouldn't be quite so bad after all, especially if the clouds blotted out some of the heat of the planet's sun. They reached the top of the next ridge about twenty minutes later, looking down at the small village nestled in the valley below.
"Something's wrong," Ronon remarked.
"Yeah," John added, pulling binoculars from one of the front pockets of his TAC vest.
"We should head down in case our assistance is required," Teyla added, her voice tight while Rodney looked from one to the other hopping for an explanation.
"What's wrong?" he blurted out finally.
John answered. "There's a lot of movement in the village below."
John winced. "Possibly," he murmured but Rodney had come to recognize the ill-at-ease expression. "Ronon, head back to the gate and call it in. Get a couple of jumpers out here just in case."
Ronon was gone before Rodney could even voice his opinion, disappearing between the trees in seconds, so Rodney followed on behind John and Teyla as they started down the other side of the ridge, heading towards the valley floor.
"If you had agreed to bring a Puddlejumper in the first place we-."
"You needed the fresh air and exercise," John interrupted, smirking a little before Rodney could get a good head of steam going, but then he froze, eyes focused on the other side of the valley, and Rodney followed his gaze.
"Is that smoke?" Rodney asked.
As he peered through the trees to the other side the smoke seemed to thicken on the other side, spreading across the whole of the opposite ridge. The air above began to glow red, and then the first flickering flames appeared on the distant horizon as the trees on the ridge began to burn, creeping over the top, and heading down the slope. It explained the panicked movement in the village below and for a moment Rodney froze, uncertain what to do.
"Caves," Teyla stated. "There are deep caves closer to the valley floor, used by the Da'arni to hide from the Wraith."
"What, you want us to run towards the fire?" Rodney exclaimed.
John turned and grabbed Rodney by the shoulders, eyes wide and deadly serious. "We don't have a lot of options. There's nothing behind us except tinder waiting to burn."
"We must go now... and quickly," Teyla urged.
With fear-induced adrenaline kicking in, Rodney hurried after John and Teyla as fast as he could, trying to keep them in sight while also trying to keep his footing as they descended towards the valley floor at breakneck speed. The fire seemed to be out pacing them, and the light wind that had been his only source of comfort from the dry heat now became their enemy, driving the fire towards them. The air was slowly thickening with smoke, causing Rodney to stumble as he tried to cover his mouth and nose. As it thickened the acrid smoke began to sting his eyes and burn his throat, and he panicked for a moment when he lost sight of John, only to half sob in relief when John appeared out of the smoke to grab him and pull him along.
"We have to go faster," John choked out between coughs, dragging Rodney along.
Ahead of them the smoke-filled world had taken on a red glow and Rodney could feel the rising heat. He saw embers drifting on the wind, catching the tips of dry pine trees and setting them ablaze above his head. A groan from burning wood had him quickening his pace as branches crashed to the ground right behind him, setting the parched undergrowth on fire too, and cutting off any chance of going back.
I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die!
The litany of doom took up inside his head as they plunged through the now burning forest, aware of the greater inferno just ahead of them as the fire reached the valley floor and began to sweep across the parched grass, brush wood, and trees towards them.
Teyla appeared from the thick smoke and they followed her into a darkness that was quickly illuminated red by the fire raging towards them. The red glow faded and the heat decreased as they moved deeper inside the cave, replaced by the flickering of torch lights set at intervals upon the walls. Coughing uncontrollably, Rodney followed on behind, staggering into the back of John when Teyla and John stopped abruptly.
"We are friends," Teyla stated between coughs. "I am Teyla... Emmagan of the... Athosians."
A man stepped out, smiling tightly, and Teyla moved closer bending her head to greet him forehead to forehead as she tried to control her coughs.
"Greetings, Esjan." She murmured solemnly. "These... are my friends, Colonel John Sheppard and... Doctor Rodney McKay."
Teyla glanced to John, speaking only when he nodded imperceptibly. "Yes."
"We have heard stories of the Lanteans since they came to the Great City." Esjan nodded. "You have not chosen a wise time to visit us, Teyla Emmagan, but please join us. We have some food and water, sufficient to wait out the Great Burn."
"The Great Burn?" Rodney asked, the words causing another coughing fit that doubled him over. Behind him he could hear John coughing heavily too.
"Come. Sit with us. I will fetch water and while you regather your strength I will tell you what you need to know."
The cave opened out into a large chamber filled with heated springs around which many people huddled with makeshift beds beneath them to protect them from the coldness and discomfort of the cave floor. They followed Esjan to a an area near the center, settling down beside a larger steaming pool onto bedding where indicated. Rodney tried to draw a deeper breath into his abused lungs only to trigger another coughing fit. He might not be a medical doctor but Rodney knew the dangers of smoke inhalation, wishing he'd taken better notice of Carson's lectures on what to do. Fortunately the Da'arni seemed to be prepared, bringing fresh water for them to drink and also large bowls filled with steaming water from the pool, strongly scented with something medicinal. Rodney copied Teyla as she leaned over the heated water and breathed it in, feeling his constricted airways opening, reducing the tightness in his chest. A glance sideways showed John doing the same.
Esjan talked while they continued to breathe in the medicinal water.
"Once in every seven to ten years, when the trees have grown to full height, a single spark will begin the Great Burn. Most times the wind is in our favor and the Great Burn heads away from our valley, but not this time."
"So the caves act as an...*cough*... emergency shelter in case of fire... or the Wraith." John stated.
"Yes. Though this year we received no warning from the Ancestors," Esjan added with bitterness. "Fortunately hunters in the forest saw the signs and felt the shift in the wind and were able to give our people some warning. Most of us were forced to flee with whatever we could carry easily in our hands, or with nothing at all. But there are...were those who were not in the village at the time, and others who could not believe the Ancestors had forsaken us, refusing to leave their dwellings in the belief they would be safe. They are now among the missing."
"Warning from the Ancestors?" John asked.
"For the past ten thousand years a high pitched sound would echo across the valley if the Great Burn was heading towards us, and an invisible wall would rise. We would see the valley burning beyond our farmlands but not a single spark or ember would cross into the valley." Esjan sighed. "This time there was no sound. No warning... and no protection from the Great Burn."
Rodney looked to John, aware that it could be any number of reasons but most likely the power source for the early warning system had depleted after all these thousands of years, just as the protective shield had started to collapse on the Kid World, and on Atlantis as it reached entropy. At least these people hadn't automatically assumed 'the strangers' were to blame just because they had arrived on the same day it all went to Hell, which made a nice change from being accused of all manner of things. He figured they had Teyla to thank for that, or rather her previous contact with these people.
"Perhaps I could... take a look once the..." he waved towards the exit, to where the fire had probably passed over them by now.
"He's good with Ancestor... things," John added, but Esjan still looked confused so John changed the subject. "We had another with us... who sprinted back to the Stargate. Ronon will bring back help."
Rodney couldn't help the slight tremble in his voice, having not wanted to think about their team member and friend until now. "You think he made it?"
"Yeah. He made it."
John sounded so positive Rodney felt his own fears subside a little. "Well," Rodney blustered. "He is fast."
"And he had a big head start... on the fire."
Rodney was tempted to ask why they had raced towards the fire in that case. Then he realized John had made a choice based on the slowest member of the team, on him, aware he would not have been able to outrun the fire whereas Ronon could run for hours and still have breath for a sprint finish. Ronon might even have reached the Stargate by now, as long as he wasn't foolish enough to look back, see the fire, and believe he could save them alone. John had that martyr streak but Ronon was far more pragmatic, aware a Jumper could cover the distance faster looking for their life signs, though it was unlikely they would pick any up through the layers of rock lying between them and the fire-ravaged surface.
"There's nothing more we can do until the fire dies down. Let's get some sleep. I'll take first watch," John ordered.
On a strange world and inside a cave - and Rodney so hated closed in spaces - he felt safe knowing John was sitting right beside him, feeling the warmth of John's body even through the layers of clothes between them. He closed his eyes as the last of the adrenaline rush faded leaving him feeling heavy and lethargic. He was safe and warm, his lungs no longer felt so tight, and he had John within touching distance, so he slept.
Rodney awoke just an hour or so later to the same darkness broken by the light of the torches scattered around the cavern. It confused him for a moment as he wondered how the smoke escaped until he rolled onto his back and looked up. The cave was shaped like the inside of a volcano, and high above he could see a dim grey light through the cone's opening. Before it would have been concealed by the thick smoke from the trees burning on the mountain above them and the steam rising from the heated springs below. It was only now he noticed how regular the walls appeared, as if man-made, or perhaps built by the Ancients. He sat up and scanned the far walls with his eyes, looking for any noticeable imperfections that might reveal a panel but the shadows were deeper at the edges of the chamber.
"Rodney?" John's voice sounded a little scratchy.
"I think we're inside an Ancient facility." He cleared his sore throat.
Rodney pulled out his tablet and checked the readings emanating from around them seeing no spikes that would indicate the presence of a ZPM or any other Ancient power source, but then if it was depleted it would not show up. He pushed to his feet gingerly and headed towards the closest wall, aware of John right behind him. Rodney reached out to touch the wall and, just as he suspected, it was smooth beneath the build-up of moss and calcified minerals. John reached out too and his super-gene caused the faintest spike on the detector as something Ancient tried to connect with him. Slowly they started walking the perimeter until Rodney stopped abruptly, the detector and his own gene both sensing some change in the structure. It took a moment longer for Rodney to find the hidden control panel, its casing sliding back to reveal the dullest flicker of lights.
"If we're lucky there's just enough power left to open the door."
Rodney indicated to John to make the attempt, having long ago stopped resenting John's stronger expression of the ATA gene. With a reluctant rumble the door slid open a fraction, just enough to squeeze through if they took off their TAC vests.
"What is this?" came an inquisitive voice behind them and they looked back to find Esjan had followed them.
"Um..." Rodney wasn't sure what to say but John moved in smoothly.
"The source of the Ancestor's protection. It failed because it ran out of juice... power."
The lights inside made a feeble attempt to come on but Rodney resorted to switching on his flashlight, panning it across what must have once been a small control room. A single console dominated the room but it failed to initialize even when John put his hand on it.
"Dead," John stated softly.
Rodney huffed. "Much as I hate to admit defeat, we should wait until we can contact Atlantis. Bring back a Mark 4 generator."
Someone came running up to Esjan, talking with him quietly.
"The Great Burn has passed but it would be safer to wait in the caves for a while longer, to allow the wind to cleanse the air." Esjan indicated around them. "While we wait, perhaps you can explain what I am seeing?"
Fortunately Teyla had arrived and to both Rodney's and John's relief she took Esjan aside and began to tell him about the Ancients - the Ancestors - and the technology they had left behind that had slowly run out of power over the last ten thousand years. He knew she would tell of other worlds where similar events had happened to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the power drain of the systems the ZPM had maintained for that particular world.
As there was little more they could do they headed back to the blankets provided by Esjan. Two hours later John's radio sounded, crackling badly but the signal strengthening as he moved towards the cave entrance.
"Good to hear your voice, Lorne," John stated.
"Yours, too, Colonel."
Rodney rolled his eyes as John preened a little. He'd been the same after his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel after the expedition's first year alone in Pegasus, and now he was a 'full bird' Colonel for his part in the destruction of the Superwraith ship that had threatened to cull the Earth. It made him of equal rank to Caldwell and Ellis, which pleased Rodney just as much because it meant they no longer outranked John except in seniority. Of course the military expected John to step down from off-world missions now so this would be their last mission as a team. It was probably for the best as Atlantis needed its Military CO and its Chief of Science dealing with the day-to-day running of the city, especially now their numbers had swelled to four times the size of the original expedition.
It was just Rodney's luck their final mission to a peaceful farming planet had turned into another 'run for your life' incident, though at least no one was throwing spears or shooting at them this time.
Two Puddlejumpers landed in a clearing just beyond the cave entrance and Rodney was not surprised to see Carson and several medical support staff with them carrying small oxygen cylinders and full burn kits.
"Is anybody injured?" Carson asked but he didn't wait for an answer before forcing an oxygen mask onto Rodney while two of his staff did the same with Teyla and John. "Keep this on until I say otherwise," Carson ordered the three of them, staring down any half-hearted objections before entering the cavern with Teyla and Esjan.
Rodney saw John with Lorne and guessed he was giving orders to start a search and rescue. Keeping the oxygen mask on, Rodney watched as Lorne's team headed down into the valley towards what remained of the village to look for any survivors, though Rodney didn't hold out much hope of anyone living through that inferno. He was grateful no one expected him to go with them. He'd seen enough death to last three lifetimes. John headed back to him, and with a quick check to ensure Carson was nowhere in sight, Rodney removed the mask.
"Sergeant Mehra's bringing the generator from the jumper. She should be here in a few minutes."
As they headed into the cave Rodney saw one of the jumpers take off. It would be heading back to Atlantis to gather survival equipment of tents, food, and water for the Da'arni, to help them through the next few days or weeks at the very least. For a moment Rodney wondered whether they would remain on this burned out world where all the planetary resources could be consumed by fire at any time, especially now they had lost their protective shield. Like so many Pegasus worlds they were far fewer in number due to the scourge of the Wraith and it would be hard rebuilding from the ashes.
Back in the control room Rodney worked swiftly, powering up the console and taking readings. It was surprisingly easy but then he had a lot of experience with Ancient Technology after spending so long fixing things in Pegasus - and especially in Atlantis. He located the ZPM, noting it was completely dead but the casing would be useful once they had figured out a safer way to refill the crystals. Perhaps now he was no longer on an off-world team he would find more time for research, building on his and Jeannie's ideas. And while he was making wishes, perhaps he'd be able to persuade her to join him on Atlantis again. All he could do for the Da'arni right now was install an early warning system that might buy them a little more time to reach the safety of the caves when the next 'Great Burn' started too close to the valley, rather than rely on someone spotting the danger before it was too late. Once he had figured out how to recharge a ZPM, or better still to build his own ZPMs, then he could send a team to get the Ancient system operational once more.
He turned and caught John smiling at him indulgently, though his expression blanked almost immediately.
"You ready to head back?"
Rodney glanced at his wristwatch, surprised when he realized several more hours had passed while he was engrossed in his work. Looking around he knew there was nothing more he could do here so he started packing away his laptop and other equipment. When he surreptitiously checked across at John he noticed the indulgent smile was back in place, warming something deep inside him.
Two days later they were sitting out on the pier again late in the evening. Two of Lantea's moons had risen ahead of them, one close to the horizon while the other bathed the ocean with a silvery glow. Behind them the city was ablaze with light even in some of the towers they had yet to explore. The lights would dim within the uninhabited parts of the city as the night progressed but for now it reminded Rodney of all the wonders waiting to be found within the city. He said as much to John.
"And the dangers too," John added, both of them recalling nanotechnology that targeted and killed non-ATA gene carriers, and weaponized humans in the form of exploding tumors.
Danger was all around them every single day, and had been for years, both inside the city and off-world. The Wraith, frightened and aggressive humans, deteriorating or weaponized Ancient technology, and even natural disasters like erupting super-volcanos, solar flares, and 'The Great Burn'. They had faced death so many times and somehow managed to cheat it but the odds were rising against them every time, bringing them closer to the day when one or both of them might not make it back alive.
"John? I wanted to ask..." Rodney trailed off because he was taking a massive risk here, afraid to lose the most important and amazing friendship just because he wanted more.
"Ask what?" John had turned towards him now, and his questioning expression slowly changed as that familiar indulgent smile lifted his perfect lips. "About time, McKay."
"Eh, about time for what... exactly?"
"And I thought I was the only one who never sees it coming," he murmured before closing the distance between them and kissing Rodney sweetly before pulling back.
Rodney sat frozen for a moment, mesmerized the flicker of John's tongue over smiling lips, as if still tasting him.
"That is so hot," Rodney blurted out, stunned again because he hadn't meant to say that out loud, only to hear John's soft laughter in response. "You're so hot," he added softly, "And I'm-." NOT, he was going to add but John stopped any unfavorable words from falling by kissing him again.
This time Rodney kissed him back.