Rodney has no idea how long there’s been knocking at the door. Long enough that the last remnants of his dream—puddlejumper soaring effortlessly through the skies, straight as an arrow—are marked by a sudden banging that makes Rodney wonder if the ship’s about to shimmy apart in new and frightening ways. Once he realizes the noise is external to his dream, he manages to pull himself out of sleep and stumble through the dark, hand hitting the access panel. He blinks owlishly as the light from the hallway hits him full in the face.
Even bleary-eyed and tired, he recognizes the silhouette in front of his door, and with a long-suffering sigh turns sideways to let Colonel Sheppard into his quarters.
“This better be good,” Rodney mutters, flipping on his bedside lamp. It’s three in the morning, and he only just remembers tumbling into bed sometime around two. He makes a haphazard attempt to straighten the sheets before he flops down, but they’re mostly a lost cause. Sheppard grabs the desk chair, sitting down and running both hands through his hair; he doesn’t look like he’s slept at all, although Rodney can’t tell from the hair. It always looks like Sheppard just rolled out of bed.
“John?” Rodney reaches out and pushes at John’s shoulder. “What?”
“I think I’m going nuts.”
Rodney just stares. He knows John well enough to know it’s cost him a great deal to come here, to say something like this, so Rodney holds the sarcasm that’s resting on his tongue and grabs the bottle of Canadian whiskey he keeps in his closet for emergencies. He pours them each a shot. When John downs his without a comment, Rodney knows exactly how bad things are. John doesn’t even like whiskey.
“Talk.” Rodney pours them each another drink, then settles back onto his bed. His patience with John’s silence lasts approximately eight seconds before he rolls his eyes and huffs loudly. “You can’t come here in the middle of the night and say something like that without expecting me to ask questions. And if I’m wasting my purloined liquor on you without a good reason—”
“Purloined?” John asks, raising an eyebrow, and Rodney almost grins back except he knows allowing Sheppard to get sidetracked won’t get him any answers.
“We live in the lost city of Atlantis and routinely escape death at the hands—literally—of Marilyn Manson wannabe space vampires. So why exactly do you think you’re going nuts?” Rodney asks, deciding to cut through to the heart of the problem, and he sees John make a face around his last swallow of whiskey, knows how John’s regretting his choice of words even now. Probably regretting his choice of confidante even more. John’s here because there isn’t anyone else he can talk to, and somehow that’s not as comforting as it should be.
“It’s not—I shouldn’t have—”
“Oh, please. I’m not going to tell Heightmeyer or Elizabeth, unless of course you really are going nuts and you’re about to endanger our lives.” Rodney studies John’s face carefully, wondering if he should start keeping one of those Wraith stunners in his quarters just in case. “You’re not, are you?”
“No.” John’s voice is slightly exasperated, and when he sets the glass down on the desktop Rodney doesn’t offer him another. He’s remembering John taken over by an alien consciousness; John, deadly and accurate and one step ahead of them all the way.
“It’s a legitimate question considering—”
“Right.” Rodney sets his own empty glass aside and clasps his hands together to stop from tapping restlessly. “So, are you going to tell me what’s wrong or are you going to pretend this never happened?”
John looks self-conscious, fidgets in the chair, and finally leans his head back and stares at the ceiling. “It’s hard to explain.”
Rodney understands how difficult it is to put words to things here. It’s harder on Atlantis than on Earth. He understood the laws of physics there, everything working in logical, predictable ways. Since he’s been here, logic seems to regularly take vacations and the laws of physics have let him down more than once. He still hasn’t gotten used to having to rely on his intuition—which generally sucks when it comes to reading people, and isn’t much more reliable when dealing with ancient technology.
“It’s like Atlantis is trying to tell me something.” John’s speaking slowly and carefully, words being meted out like rations. “It’s like a hum in the back of my brain. At first it was only there at night—while I was sleeping—but now it’s there all the time.”
Rodney’s always envied John his connection to Atlantis. His gene is stronger, purer than the rest, and as much as Rodney wishes the artificial gene was as potent as the real thing, he’s come to terms with the fact that Atlantis will always be John Sheppard’s city. It doesn’t mean Rodney loves her any less, though. He loves Atlantis enough he’s willing to share, and truthfully he can’t say that about many things in his life.
“What kind of a hum?” he presses. “Electronic? Like the background sound of equipment or—”
“More like a whisper. Shifting tones. It’s like a conversation underwater, and I know I should understand it, but I can’t quite make out the words.”
“Is it English? Ancient?” Rodney’s fascinated—he can’t help it—and John shakes his head.
“I’m not one of your experiments.” He starts to get up from the chair, but Rodney’s off the bed and holding him by the elbow.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he says. “You’re hearing voices and that’s never a good sign, but I’m not about to pack you off to Heightmeyer and a rubber room without more information. You came here for help, so let me help. Tell me what you think it is.”
“I don’t know!” The frustration is clear in John’s voice, and Rodney steers him back towards the chair. He looks at John’s tired eyes, the tension in the slope of his shoulders.
“Okay.” Rodney rubs at his eyes and tries to clear his head. “Humour the scientist. I need a baseline to work from. When did this start?”
“Maybe a week ago.”
“And you didn’t say anything?” Rodney wants to tell him how utterly stupid that is, but he suspects John can read it in his face, the tone of his voice. They haven’t survived two years on missions together without being able to read one another pretty well. Most of the time.
“I thought it would go away!” John’s got his arms crossed over his chest now, slouched posture anything but relaxed.
“And obviously you were wrong,” Rodney snaps back. Maybe John really does need his head examined. “And it’s getting worse?”
“Yes.” John looks more exhausted than Rodney’s ever seen him. “The last two days it’s been almost constant. It’s starting to give me a headache.”
“Have you tried ear plugs?” Rodney asks.
“It’s in my head, Rodney. Ear plugs don’t do a lot when the voices are inside your brain! Did ear plugs help when Cadman was—”
“Okay, okay!” Rodney holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Is it there now?”
John pauses, tilting his head to the side like he’s listening. “It’s there, but it’s not as noticeable.”
Rodney wants to smile at that, but he figures John will just use it as an excuse to tease him about his lack of an inside voice, how Rodney can drown out anything. “If you’re distracted, it’s better?”
John thinks for a moment, then nods. “Seems that way.”
“So you need something to distract you!” Rodney’s pleased with himself for finding a quick-fix solution that will buy him some time to figure this out. He notices John’s raised eyebrow, and the way the desk chair is closer to the bed than it was before. Rodney’s sitting on the edge, one hand on John’s knee, and suddenly Rodney’s far too aware of all the things they don’t say. The way casual touches aren’t always casual.
“I know what you meant, Rodney,” John says, softly, saving them both from further embarrassment. This really isn’t the time to be trying to figure out what’s never going to be less than complicated.
“When’s the last time you slept?” Rodney asks suddenly. John’s wearing a soft black tee shirt and sweats, so Rodney figures he at least made an attempt at getting some rest, however unsuccessful. In the time it takes Sheppard to shrug evasively—as if the shadows under his eyes aren’t already telling Rodney it’s been at least a couple of days—Rodney’s popped open the control panel nearest his bed and tapped into the musical database. The strains of a Bach cantata are filling the room.
“I made a few adjustments to the comm. system,” Rodney offers in response to Sheppard’s curious stare.
John closes his eyes and Rodney watches him. Sees a smile steal over his lips, as he nods, understanding. “I think that might work,” John murmurs. When he opens his eyes, he seems less worried, more hopeful. “Can I get my room to—”
“No. Sorry.” Rodney’s genuinely apologetic. “I mean, I could set it up for you, but it would take a couple of hours. I was just playing with the circuits one day, seeing what I could do.” Rodney knows he doesn’t have to tell Sheppard how difficult it is to stop working sometimes. How the silence and the sound of the waves can be overwhelming.
“Well,” John starts. “I guess I should go.” He stands up, stepping back and away, but Rodney’s on his feet in an instant, a hand on John’s arm.
“You can stay.” He flushes, and stumbles over the words. “I mean, the music might help, and the last thing Atlantis needs is an exhausted military commander. Besides, you need to sleep, and I’m already awake, so you should just lie down and I’ll start making some notes on—”
“Rodney.” John’s smile is affectionate. “I’m not kicking you out of your bed. I’ve only got a few hours until I’ve got to be up anyway.”
“So you should stay here and get some sleep.”
“Only if you do the same.”
John’s determination surprises him, but Rodney can see John wants to stay. It’s in the way his eyes are straying longingly to the bed, and Rodney doesn’t even care that it probably has nothing to do with him. John’s exhausted, Atlantis is whispering in his brain, and if life goes the way it normally does, Rodney’s pretty sure things are going to get worse before they get better. They’re both going to need sleep. They’ve shared quarters and tents on off-world missions; Rodney supposes this really isn’t any different.
Bach gives way to something slow and sweet by Brahms as Rodney turns out the bedside light. He gives John a small shove towards the bed, figuring there are definite advantages to a pushy personality. “Come on, John. Sleep. I promise to behave myself.” He laughs, hoping it’s convincing. “We’ll figure it out in the morning.”
John lies down on his side, facing away from Rodney, only pausing long enough to toe off his boots. He doesn’t have his gun or his radio with him, and he looks oddly vulnerable in the pale light. Cautiously, Rodney sits on the edge of the narrow bed before taking a breath and lying down, back to Sheppard. It seems the safest route.
He lies there, listening to the soft strains of a violin fade, replaced by something that sounds like classical guitar. Rodney hopes the database doesn’t offer up “The William Tell Overture” or anything with loud cymbal crashes before morning. Somehow, he suspects it won’t. He reaches down and tugs the blankets up, covers them both.
“Thanks for the distraction,” John murmurs.
“You’re welcome.” Rodney falls asleep with music in his ears and John Sheppard warm against his back. It’s the closest he’s felt to truly happy in a long time.
John smells coffee and hears Rodney’s voice before he opens his eyes. In the back of his head, he can still hear the faint hum of Atlantis—or something like Atlantis—trying to get his attention, but he pushes it away and concentrates on the tones of Rodney’s voice. He’s arguing with someone—quietly—over the radio, and John realizes Rodney’s keeping his voice low because he thinks John’s still asleep.
“No, no, no! Under no circumstances are you to let Masterson anywhere near that control panel. He’s got the fine motor skills of an elephant. He should be digging potatoes with those hands, not recalibrating equipment. Put him somewhere he won’t do any harm.” There’s a pause and John knows Rodney’s rolling his eyes in response to whatever the other person—probably Zelenka—is saying. “Fine. But you’re responsible if he blows himself up. I’ll check in later so I can say ‘I told you so.’ … Yes, all right. Fine.”
John listens, but doesn’t open his eyes. It’s rare that Rodney's like this. Unguarded. He can hear Rodney moving around, tapping something on his laptop, sipping at his coffee. There’s still music playing in the background, and John recognizes the strains of something familiar, although he can’t quite place it. Something classical. Mozart maybe. He isn’t sure. Piano lessons were another lifetime ago.
Then Rodney’s subdued voice is cutting through everything, obviously in answer to a radio page. “Yes, Elizabeth. I know that. … Well, we’re going to be late.” John remembers the 10:00 briefing and wonders if it’s possible he’s slept that long. “He’s not answering his radio because he’s here. He’s still asleep.” That’s almost enough to pull John out of the warmth and comfort of Rodney’s bed. He opens his eyes and Rodney gives him a small smile before rolling his eyes at whatever Elizabeth’s saying. “Oh, for—look, he’s been having headaches, hearing—we’ll explain when we get there! You’d better bring Carson in on this one. … What? No, he’s fine. Mostly. … I’m not a doctor! Well, okay, I am, but—seriously, we’ll be there in half an hour. Apparently he’s awake now, so I’m going to—Elizabeth, I swear, it’ll all make sense in a half hour. Or at least as much sense as it can. McKay out.”
With that, Rodney tears off the ear piece and tosses it onto the desk. “Fuck,” he says. “If I’d known missing a staff meeting was this much trouble, I would’ve just gone without you. I didn’t know Elizabeth was going to call out the dogs when she couldn’t locate you.”
John props himself up on his elbows. “So Elizabeth knows I spent the night here?”
“Well, she called to find out if I knew where you were, and obviously …” Rodney stutters to a halt. “She’s not going to—I mean, she won’t assume.” His cheeks turn slightly pink and his eyes won’t hold John’s gaze. “Fuck. I didn’t think it was a problem. Everyone knows we’re friends.”
“It’s fine.” John tugs back the covers and rolls to a sitting position. He feels better. Rested. He remembers dreams that were mainly a kaleidoscope of sounds and colours. Piano and violin, guitar and harp. Blues and ambers sliding together like waves upon a shore. The hum settles into the back of his brain and quietly murmurs to him in words he can’t understand, but it doesn’t feel as overwhelming as it did the night before.
“It’s fine,” he repeats, reaching out and squeezing Rodney’s arm. “We’re a long way from Earth, and I’ve never cared much for that crap. People will think what they want regardless of the truth.” There have been rumours long before this, and John knows he’s not the only one that’s heard them. According to Atlantis’s well-greased rumour mill he’s slept with most of the women on base, and at least half the men. If it’s not Rodney who’s sharing his bed, it’s Ronon. Or Elizabeth. Or Teyla. John’s learned to ignore the talk. He and his right hand have been getting along just fine without the need for anyone else. It’s easier that way.
John heads for the bathroom, runs the shower as hot as he can stand it, and lets the water wash over him. He breathes in steam and watches his toes turn pink against the cream-coloured tiles of the floor. The shampoo is hypo-allergenic and unscented, and John smiles as he lathers it into his dark hair. He doesn’t think Rodney will mind. He’s rinsing the last of the bubbles out when he hears the bathroom door open.
“How’s your head?” Rodney asks casually, as if John had come by simply complaining of a headache last night.
“Better,” John admits. “The hum’s still there, but I slept. The music helped.” So did you, John wants to say, but he isn’t sure how that will sound. They’d kept to their sides of the bed, no unnecessary touching, but John hadn’t realized what a relief it was just to have Rodney close by, to know he wasn’t alone.
“Good.” Rodney sounds distracted, and John wonders how much sleep he got. “I’m just going to grab us some food from the mess. I’ll be back in ten.”
“Okay.” The door closes again and Rodney’s gone. John leans against the tiles and jerks off slowly, concentrates on the sensation of his hand on his cock. When he comes, it’s enough to give him a few minutes of blessed silence in his brain. He rinses off and steps into the bath, snagging the towel Rodney’s left for him, neatly folded on the rack. There’s a dark grey t-shirt folded and hung beside the towel, and John slips it on over his head. It’s Rodney’s, obviously, from the way it hangs on John—looser than his own by a mile—but it’s soft and comfortable, and he needs that today. He doesn’t even care that people are going to get the wrong impression. He almost hopes they do because at least it would give him something real to deal with besides the half-whispers cluttering up his thoughts.
On the edge of the sink there’s a package of boxers, pale blue and cotton, still sealed, and John tears them open and slips them on, not really surprised that Rodney has new underwear, hermetically sealed. He’s almost disappointed that they’re new, that they’ve never touched Rodney’s skin. He thinks he’d like that—knowing he was wearing something that had lingered against Rodney’s flesh. John rubs a hand lightly over the t-shirt and marvels at how soft it feels. It’s probably his imagination, but he thinks it smells a little like Rodney, or at least whatever hypo-allergenic soap he insists on using for his laundry.
John tugs on the rest of his clothes, scrubs his hands through his damp hair and determines it’s a lost cause. He feels awkward about the sweatpants--not very professional--but he figures Elizabeth will forgive him one lapse in dress code. By the time Rodney shows up with a plate of muffins and fruit, John’s sitting on the edge of the bed tying his boots.
“Hey,” Rodney says, stopping to look at him for a minute. John remembers how he felt when Vivian Small wore his letterman jacket in high school. How it gave him a tiny proprietary burst of joy every time he saw her with his over-sized jacket draped around her shoulders. How he couldn’t help thinking mine. He wonders if that’s what Rodney’s thinking. If he’s thinking anything at all.
“Thanks,” John says, grabbing a muffin. He gestures at the food, but he means for the shirt and the underwear and the three a.m. whiskey too. Rodney seems to know that when he nods and says, “any time.”
“Ready to try and explain this to Elizabeth?” Rodney asks, slipping on his jacket and grabbing his laptop.
But John steps out the door behind Rodney and walks beside him all the way to the briefing room. Rodney’s humming the score to South Pacific under his breath as they walk, and John doesn’t say anything, just smirks and concentrates on the familiar rise and fall of tones, the cadences of Rodney’s voice. The hum in his brain recedes a little further, and John knows somehow they’ll figure this out. Together.
The meeting goes about as well as Rodney expected. There’s exactly the same amount of yelling as there normally is and most of it is directed at him, which is also normal.
“You should’ve brought him to the infirmary as soon as he told you,” Carson says, already sticking an otoscope in John’s ear.
“Are you all right?” Elizabeth’s hovering, one hand on John’s shoulder. “Can I get you anything?”
John murmurs softly about dimming the lights and playing soft music, and a cup of that really dark roast coffee might be nice. When it looks like Elizabeth’s half a step away from giving John a back rub, Rodney loses it completely: “Oh, that’s just perfect. He’s quite possibly poised to be taken over by some alien consciousness—again—and all you people can do is offer him coffee and shine a light in his ear. I can already tell you what you’re going to find, Carson. Nothing.”
John looks slightly offended at that, and Elizabeth’s got her arms crossed over her chest like a mother about to defend her difficult child. Rodney’s not about to be swayed by Sheppard’s charm. “Look, this could be a huge security risk. Not to mention how uncomfortable it is to have another consciousness in your brain. Been there! He needs neurological scans to rule out—”
“Rodney,” Carson interrupts. “If you were so worried, why didn’t you bring him to me last night?”
Rodney lets out an exasperated sigh. “I knew where he was. Plus, I pulled his security clearances as soon as he was asleep.” John raises an eyebrow at him, but it’s not disapproving. If anything John looks pleased, and Rodney looks away before he starts to blush. He seriously needs to get over his desire to prove he’s a worthwhile member of John’s team. “I’ve also got Radek running diagnostics on Atlantis’s systems, and the Colonel’s quarters in particular. If something’s transmitting a signal, we’ll find it.”
“Very good, Rodney.” Elizabeth still looks like she wants to bundle Sheppard up and take him home. Rodney isn’t sure why that disturbs him so much, and he really doesn’t want to examine it too closely. They’ve all been through so much together, he knows it’s natural to feel a little possessive towards the members of his team. Or at least his team leader. Perfectly natural.
“Colonel, let’s have you down to the infirmary where I can run some tests, shall we? That’ll give Rodney a chance to finish checking the systems and seeing if we can eliminate an external cause.”
John nods. He hasn’t said much during the meeting other than to clarify Rodney’s outbursts or provide more exact descriptions of the sounds he’s hearing. He seems distracted and Rodney fires off a quick email to Radek asking him to have someone grab whatever passes for music in Sheppard’s quarters—an iPod, a cd player—and deliver it to the infirmary. It occurs to Rodney that Sheppard could have easily gone back to his own quarters last night. He knows John’s got an appalling collection of country and western CDs and he’s certain there’s at least one Greatest Hits of the Eighties in the mix. Looking at him in Rodney’s too-big t-shirt, his eyes still tired, hair sticking up in all directions, Rodney has to resist the urge to take him back to his quarters. Sheppard isn’t supposed to look that vulnerable.
“Rodney?” He realizes they’re all looking at him, faces pale and concerned, and he mumbles something about needing to see Radek. John nods, but he looks disappointed. Rodney pats him awkwardly on the shoulder on the way out. Sheppard isn’t the only one who needs a distraction, and work is the best one he can think of.
“Radek,” Rodney says into his radio as he strides down the hall. “I’m on my way. Bring me up to speed on what you’ve found.”
What they’ve found is exactly nothing. After three different types of diagnostics and Rodney ripping apart the control panel in Sheppard’s wall, there’s nothing to indicate a problem with the system.
“No power fluctuations, no equipment that shouldn’t be here, nothing.” Radek pushes his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, and shakes his head. “If the Colonel is hearing things, it is not from any part of the communications system. Atlantis is not talking to him, as far as I can tell.”
Rodney nods absently. He’s been over the entire system. So has Radek. It’s beginning to look more and more like the voices are in John’s head, and Rodney doesn’t know what that means. For any of them. He’s used to Sheppard being a steady dependable presence in a crisis.
“I will check everything again,” Radek says, patting Rodney on the shoulder. “You go see the Colonel, see if there is anything else he can tell us.”
Rodney nods and leaves Radek to keep looking for answers Rodney isn’t sure are there. He heads to the infirmary, half-hoping, half-dreading that Carson’s found something.
“Nothing,” Carson says. John’s sitting on the edge of one of the infirmary beds, legs dangling over the side. He’s still wearing Rodney’s t-shirt, and it brings a smile to Rodney’s face as he catches Sheppard’s eyes.
“Nothing?” Rodney repeats. He hops up on the bed beside John.
“No brain damage, no tumors, nothing on the scans. Nothing at all to explain it.” John’s voice is full of frustration. His hair looks like its been repeatedly ruffled by impatient hands, and Rodney’s got to resist the urge to run a hand through it. He can only imagine the look John would give him, but Rodney wants to touch, needs to do something to say things are going to be okay. He settles for bumping a shoulder against John’s, feels John press closer to his side. It’s enough.
“We’ve just started running diagnostics,” Rodney says. “We’ll figure out what’s causing this.”
Carson leaves them alone. John’s got his iPod connected to one ear, and when he asks Rodney to tell him the details of all the tests they’ve run, Rodney understands that John needs to be kept in the loop. He needs something to concentrate on other than the whispers in his head. So Rodney explains the intricacies of Atlantis’s circuitry, their attempts to access the communication systems, and concludes by letting John know he’s going to spend the afternoon configuring the controls so John can access Atlantis’s entire musical database.
“Cool,” John says quietly, and for the rest of the day Rodney’s got an assistant. Rodney keeps up a steady stream of chatter, answering questions with more patience than he usually manages, and by the time the sun’s gone down, they’re no closer to understanding what’s happening to John, but at least Rodney feels like they’re making progress.
They have supper in the mess, and Rodney ignores the curious glances cast their way. In spite of Elizabeth’s best efforts, Rodney knows rumours have already started to surface. Sheppard’s been taken off-duty, the team’s essentially grounded. Teyla and Ronon have taken Sergeant Stackhouse and a jumper to the mainland to inquire if there are any stories of the Ancestors that might explain what Sheppard’s going through. The whispers are quiet, but they’re there. Rodney glares at anyone who looks at them askance and stabs at his food with a vengeance.
“Hey,” John says, partway through dinner. “What did that chicken ever do to you?”
“It’s not chicken,” Rodney retorts. “It’s some sort of speckled blue grouse the Athosians set traps for.”
“Tastes like chicken.”
Rodney’s about to argue, but John’s smirking at him and Rodney tosses a roll at John’s head instead. The laugh that follows is the best thing Rodney’s heard all day.
“Want to watch a movie?” John asks, and before long they’re settled in Rodney’s quarters, a foot apart on the bed, making fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The whiskey comes out halfway through the second film, and Rodney knows the hum in John’s head is getting worse when he closes his eyes and reaches for the pillow.
“What can I do?” Rodney feels helpless. He watches the muscle in John’s jaw clench and unclench.
“I don’t know.”
“Is it worse? Is there anything—”
“It’s—it’s louder.” John’s eyes are still closed. He leans back against the pillow, and Rodney turns off the laptop, sets it on the floor. In a moment he’s got classical music pouring into the room, the lights set on dim, and he’s sitting beside John feeling lost.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he says. “I don’t know how to fix this.”
John reaches for him, manages to get both hands on Rodney’s arms, pulling him closer. Rodney overbalances and falls into John, but somehow it doesn’t matter. He’s grabbing at John’s shirt, his own t-shirt, and then John’s in his arms, face buried against Rodney’s shoulder, and he’s talking so quietly Rodney has to strain to hear him.
“I’m seriously losing my mind here, Rodney. All I can hear is whispers in my head, and when I close my eyes there are lights flashing gold and orange. I feel like I should know what it’s telling me, but all I want is for it to stop. Just stop.”
Rodney slides his hands up into John’s hair as if somehow he can keep the noise out by holding John’s head.
“All this hair and not an ounce of protection for that brain of yours,” he murmurs, and Rodney feels John laughing against his shoulder. It’s not much, but it’s something, and Rodney manages to get both of them reclined on the bed without too much fuss. John’s still got his eyes closed tight and Rodney holds him awkwardly, their legs tangled together along the length of the bed.
“Rodney.” John’s voice is pleading, but Rodney isn’t sure he’s ready for this, if they’re ready for this. He presses a finger to John’s lips.
“Just talk to me,” John says, giving him an out. “Just talk.”
“I can do that.” Rodney talks about everything and nothing, fills John’s head with a different kind of noise until he falls asleep. Rodney presses his lips to John’s forehead and thinks about how close they are to crossing the line. When John whimpers in his sleep, Rodney pulls him tighter and murmurs in his ear. By the time he falls asleep, he’s almost managed to convince himself this is what friends do.
The next two days John slips further away from them. Rodney tears the entire communications grid apart looking for answers. John’s iPod is a constant presence and Rodney registers the gradual increase of the volume, as if it can block out what John’s hearing and seeing. He’s taken to wearing his shades around Atlantis now, and Rodney sees himself reflected in the mirrored lenses and thinks maybe he’s going crazy too. John disappears into his quarters late in the afternoon, but Rodney keeps working until he can’t see straight. Radek sends him away.
He goes to the infirmary to find out if Carson’s got any news.
“I’ve had a bunch of people in here complaining of headaches” he says. A hum in the back of their brains. Flickering lights at the edges of thought.
“Only ATA gene carriers,” Carson explains. Rodney stops and tries to determine if he’s got any symptoms, but it seems like it’s only those with the natural genes.
“Could it be a virus?” Rodney asks. “Something to target people with the gene?”
“There’s no physical evidence of a virus,” Carson says. “John’s gene is stronger than most. It’s why he was affected first, but I still can’t tell what’s causing it.”
Carson looks exhausted, and Rodney remembers Carson must be feeling the effects now too. Elizabeth’s face is lined with concern.
“What if it’s not physical?”
Rodney shakes his head. “I’ve been through every system. There’s nothing coming from within Atlantis.”
“What about from outside Atlantis?” Elizabeth asks. “Some kind of signal?”
Rodney holds up a finger to dismiss the idea, but stops. A signal. Telepathic, perhaps. Sub-sonic. Rodney hits the radio and tells Radek to start scanning for long-range signals on all registers. Sub-space. Anything that might be used to transmit a message that could be picked up by the brain.
He hurries to his quarters to tell John what they’ve found. When he gets there, the room is flooded with music, Beethoven’s ninth, choir in full voice, and John’s huddled on the bed with his hands over his eyes.
“John!” Rodney crawls onto the bed beside him and touches him. It’s one of the things that’s been keeping John grounded, and he leans into Rodney as if he’s been starving for his touch.
“I can’t take much more of this.” His hands are tugging Rodney closer, curling in the fabric of his shirt.
“I know.” Rodney presses a cool hand to John’s sweating face, tells him to open his eyes. “What can I do? Tell me. Anything.” Rodney’s desperate enough to mean it, to make his voice and his hands give John permission to ask.
“Distract me,” John murmurs, and it’s enough.
John’s living in a world that hums. Like a thousand cicadas lazing in the summer heat, and in the background the low sustain of a bass guitar, and somewhere else there are shadow mouths whispering to him, singing words he can’t understand, but thinks he should know.
Behind his eyelids he sees only colour. Amber, deep and dark like the sap of maples in spring, and sometimes the lights flicker red and orange, sunsets and fireflies and the afterburners of an F-15 at night.
“Focus on me. Listen to me.”
For a moment, John does. Blinking away phantom lights and noises, he can feel Rodney’s hands on his face, can hear the sound of Rodney’s voice, loud and sharp and scared. John isn’t sure why.
“John, look at me. Look into my eyes.”
The amber fades away and is replaced by the purest blue John’s ever seen. It’s the sky on a cloudless day, Atlantis’s ocean. It’s riding the surf off the coast of Oahu, the first bike he had when he was a kid, the plates his mother used when company came. It’s Rodney, and John wants that more than anything.
“That’s it. Stay with me.” Rodney’s eyes hold John like anchors while all of Rodney’s words crash over him: telling him he’s not alone, that others are experiencing it too, and Radek’s looking for a signal. Rodney’s certain they’re going to find something. John just has to hold on.
“I can’t,” John says, shaking his head, and the blue spirals into gold and the world starts to hum again. “I’m supposed to understand this. It’s all I can think about, all I can hear. Sounds and lights, and I’m supposed to know what they mean. It’s so close I can feel it.”
“I can distract you,” Rodney says, and the hands on John’s face are sliding lower, tugging at the soft grey shirt that’s Rodney’s. John’s washed it twice, but he can’t give it back, and John fights a little as Rodney tries to take it off.
“You can keep the damn shirt, John.” There’s an irritated chuckle in Rodney’s voice, and then his hands are sliding underneath the shirt, stroking cool against hot skin, and John thinks this is the best idea ever. Rodney’s mouth is hesitant, but it’s there, pressed against the edge of John’s lips, his cheeks, his chin. Teeth scraping the line of his jaw, tongue tracing his throat, and then John’s frantically tugging Rodney closer, hungry for connection, for something real and solid, and Rodney’s mouth is everything he wants it to be. Hot and hard and too demanding to ignore.
“Yes,” John manages to say. “God, yes, Rodney, keep doing that.” The hum starts to fade, the amber lights dim, and John hears his breathing and his heart, hears Rodney murmuring hot dirty things against his mouth, and John can’t get naked fast enough. Shirts disappear, hands fumble at belt buckles and buttons, and somewhere in the middle the light goes careening off the bedside table, leaving them in darkness.
John’s world becomes a small space of flesh and bone, blood rushing in his veins and drowning out every other sound except for Rodney’s encouraging moans. When Rodney gets a hand on him, strokes him hard with rhythmic pulls, the world goes white. No sound, no colour, just the silent pulse of pleasure, and John slips over the edge and knows nothing more.
Radek radios Rodney in the middle of the night to tell him he’s found something.
“I’ll be right there.” Rodney extricates himself from John’s sleeping form and pulls on the pants tangled on the floor. He’s got a foot in one pair before he realizes they’re John’s and there’s no way he’s going to be able to get them past his knee.
“Skinny bastard,” he says fondly, searching for the right pants. He grabs a clean t-shirt out of his drawer and wonders how many of his t-shirts are going to find their way into John’s quarters. He can’t say he really minds. John’s shoulders are bare, and Rodney pulls the blankets up and kisses him softly on the mouth.
Radek’s waiting for him in the control room when Rodney stumbles in. “What did you find?”
“Subspace signal, very faint. Seems to be originating from this area. Here.” Radek pulls a star chart up and points to a small system of planets.
“We haven’t even been there, have we?” Rodney says, tapping into the Ancient database.
“No. No contact.”
“Why the hell are we getting an almost undetectable signal from a planet we’ve never been to?”
“Signal is Ancient in design,” Radek says. “It’s purpose is not clear, but it seems unlikely it is intended to cause harm. Perhaps—”
“Sheppard’s practically incapacitated,” Rodney snaps. “It’s irrelevant whether they intended any harm or not.”
“I’ve alerted Dr. Weir. She is on her way down. Major Lorne is assembling a team.”
“Radek.” Rodney checks the star chart again. “There are at least six planets in that system. How are we supposed to know where to start?”
“I’ll start running analysis. Will be done by morning.” Radek prods Rodney in the side. “Go back to Colonel Sheppard. Make sure he is all right.”
“I’m sure he’s—”
Radek sighs. “Rodney, just go. You are tired. Your shirt is inside out, and someone will need to review data in the morning when I am too tired to see straight. Go to bed. I will call you if anything changes.”
“Okay,” Rodney agrees reluctantly, wondering what kind of state he’s going to find John in when he returns to his quarters.
John feels the hum moving throughout his body. It’s louder than it was before—a thousand times louder—and he imagines he can see the blood trilling through his veins. His naked skin looks golden, and he raises a hand to study the glow. Each mark on his skin looks like the outline of a gothic window, dark and leaden, breaking his palm into fractional segments, the colour of liquid gold.
He recognizes the voice, remembers the hands that touched him earlier, and he wishes he could concentrate, but there’s something more important he’s needed for. He watches the gold spreading outward from his fingers, and the silhouette of another person is framed in brilliant light.
“John, can you hear me?”
There is pressure where fingers are touching his skin, measuring his pulse. Lips touch his, pleading with him to focus, and he wants to, he really does. He remembers blue and oceans and the sting of salt, the cool dampness of sweat. He knows the voice that whispers in his ear, the hands that are mapping the lines of his body.
“God, John. Stay with me. Please.”
Strong arms are around him, and he registers the bite and suck of teeth at his neck, the rough tongue that strokes his ear. The hum is quieter—the roar of the ocean—but the world is still a treasure chest of golden coins scattered across his skin. Rodney’s blue eyes are distant galaxies, and even the touch of strong fingers can’t pull him entirely away from the pulsing rhythm that’s trapped inside his head.
Rodney’s mouth moves over John’s skin, moves lower until his breath is tickling the fine hair at the base of John’s cock. Fingers spread him further, rub tender balls and the sensitive underside of his cock, and finally John’s feels himself sucked into a dark warm cave, lips sliding up and down his shaft with careful strokes. John’s hard, and in his mind, the hum pulls away from his mind, rushes through his veins and settles in the tip of his cock, where Rodney’s tongue is teasing him with short, careful strokes. Then Rodney’s swallowing him down, alternating sucking and licking, and John’s brain keeps painting the room in amber until he’s sure his cock is glowing under Rodney’s tongue, glowing as bright and powerful as a fucking …
“Oh, God,” John yells as he comes in a burst of light. “I know, Rodney. I know what it means.”
“A ZPM?” Elizabeth says incredulously.
“That’s what he says.” Rodney’s pacing back and forth in her office, watching John talking to Radek. He’s wearing another one of Rodney’s t-shirts—blue, this time—and Rodney notices the sunglasses are back, the headphones too. John’s been wavering back and forth between full coherence and mystic gibberish for the better part of an hour now, and Rodney’s ready for this all to be over.
“So the hum, the visions?”
“All trying to point him in the direction of a ZPM.”
“He thinks.” Elizabeth looks skeptical. “Is there anything to confirm this?”
Rodney can’t exactly say that John had his epiphany while Rodney was sucking his cock, so he settles on the only answer that seems to make sense. “Well, there is a signal coming from that area of space, but beyond that, we won’t be able to tell what’s out there until we send a team. We’re too far away to tell if there’s an energy signature there.”
Elizabeth sits on the edge of her desk and fixes Rodney with a serious stare. He’s seen it far too often on her face. She doesn’t like uncertainty, doesn’t like risking her people when she doesn’t know the odds.
“Rodney, I need to know your scientific assessment.”
Rodney knows what that means. She won’t come right out and ask if he can be impartial, probably knows damn well he lost that ability with John a long time ago, but she’s trying to weigh the odds and he’s got to be as honest as he can. She can’t help but notice he’s freshly showered, just like John, and Rodney knows it’s just as obvious as if they’d shown up smelling like sex.
“He’s not crazy,” Rodney says. “The signal’s affecting him, and will probably continue to affect him until something changes—either we find a way to turn it off, or it stops broadcasting on its own.”
“And John’s sure it’s a ZPM.”
“Yes.” Rodney hopes he sounds convincing. John’s explanation during a hasty shower had a lot to do with seeing fragments of amber and yellow light, and sure, that could mean a ZPM, but it could mean a thousand other things too. Still, Rodney’s willing to risk it if there’s a chance of finding a power source. And keeping John sane. He’s willing to do almost anything if he can have John back to normal.
“All right. See if you can narrow down the choices, then I’ll decide if Lorne’s team is going.”
John’s sitting in front of the control panel, listening to Radek murmur in Czech. It’s not as distracting as Rodney’s familiar patter, but it’s something, and John tries to focus on it, pushing the hum to the edge of his mind. It’s hard. It’s louder than ever, and the patterns of light are flickering in front of his eyes even when they’re open. The pieces are sliding into bars of gold, Tiffany lamps of yellow and orange, and he’s sure, more sure than ever there’s a ZPM at the end of the rainbow. If only he can see this through.
He wants to give Rodney something for keeping him together. For distracting him in the best possible ways. For caring. A ZPM seems like the least he can do.
John hears Rodney approaching, listens to him berate someone for leaning on the console, and then he’s kneeling in front of John and telling him to concentrate.
“Think about where it is,” Rodney says, settling his hands on John’s knees. John remembers the warmth of Rodney’s big hands sliding down his thighs, stroking his cock, and he can feel his face flush when Rodney shakes his shoulder gently. “Colonel. Stay with me. Where’s the signal coming from? Try to picture it.”
The light scatters behind his eyelids, forming into pinpricks against a dark sky. Constellations. Symbols. John pushes Rodney back and reaches for the DHD, lets his hands move over the panel pressing the pieces in an order he knows is correct. He hears the whoosh of a wormhole forming, Elizabeth in the background asking what’s going on, Rodney telling Lorne to send the MALP through.
“I have to go,” John says, and Rodney’s blue eyes are wide even as he nods. “I have to go with them.”
Rodney keeps his hand on John’s arm as they find vests and holsters, and Rodney straps on John’s sidearm with shaking hands. John looks down and strokes a hand through Rodney’s hair, body recalling the memory of Rodney pressed against him, warm mouth breathing into his, scattering kisses across his belly, his chest. Lips and tongue sliding lower, taking him inside, until John didn’t know anything except Rodney. He’s aching with a need that isn’t entirely physical, and when Rodney brushes a cheek against John’s groin, he groans and pulls Rodney to his feet.
They’re in the locker room nearest the gate. Not far enough away for privacy of any kind, but John kisses Rodney anyway. Finds his mouth and slides inside, tongue pushing into every open spot, and Rodney doesn’t resist—just wraps his arms around John’s waist and holds on.
“We’ll find it,” Rodney whispers into his mouth, and John nods and kisses him once more. He doesn’t care that they both look wrecked when they stumble into the gate room.
He doesn’t care at all.
They find the ZPM hidden in the base of an altar in the middle of a ruined temple. John’s like a human divining rod and leads them straight to it, eyes closed and hands outstretched, and Rodney’s never felt so far away from someone who’s standing right beside him.
It takes four marines to pry the altar apart, but when John touches the ZPM there’s one truly terrifying moment where everything turns golden and Rodney’s sure he’s blinded for life. The walls are rattling with the hum of energy released, and when everything slides back into focus, John’s lying unconscious on the stone floor, ZPM clutched tightly to his chest. Rodney drops to his knees, feels for a pulse, for breath, and tries to remember why they don’t bring a medic along on these missions as standard operating procedure. It would certainly make sense.
“He’s fine,” Major Lorne says, checking the same vitals that Rodney did, and Rodney lets out an exasperated “I knew that,” but it lacks his usual bite. He doesn’t interfere as two of the marines produce a stretcher and roll Sheppard onto it. Rodney just keeps one hand on the ZPM and one on John’s arm all the way back to the gate. He knows this mission is over, that John won’t be hearing voices anymore, won’t need Rodney’s particular brand of distraction to keep him sane.
Rodney isn’t sure how he feels about that. He rubs the golden edge of the ZPM and tries not to think of it as a consolation prize.
“It’s rechargeable,” Rodney says with excitement. He’s still wearing his lab coat when he bursts into Elizabeth’s office, interrupting a meeting with John.
“No, my brain. Of course, the ZPM! At first, it looked the same as all the rest, but there’s an extra component—one we haven’t even begun to figure out yet—but it looks like it’s meant to hold energy that can be transferred to the main unit. Kind of like a battery unit almost.”
Elizabeth’s looking at him with the kind of hope he hasn’t seen on her face in a long time. “Do you know what this means?”
“It means a Nobel Prize,” Rodney says, ignoring John’s eye roll. “If we can figure out how it works, it’s possible we can convert other units to this type. We still haven’t figured out how to recharge it, but—”
“But it’s only a matter of time before you do,” Elizabeth finishes. “Rodney, I have complete confidence in you and the science team.”
“She’s right, Rodney. If anyone can figure it out, you can.” Sheppard’s voice is sincere.
Rodney steps back, realizing he hasn’t talked to Sheppard since Carson let him out of the infirmary. Truthfully, Rodney’s been spending all of his time working on the new ZPM, trying to determine if they can use it without completely draining it. It’s low on power, and so far the methods they’ve used to attempt recharging it have all failed.
“Well,” Rodney says awkwardly. “I should get back.”
“I’ll walk with you,” John says, getting up, and Rodney feels something catch in his chest. He was needed in the labs; he hasn’t really been avoiding Sheppard, as much as it might seem that way. And if he stumbles into his quarters at three in the morning and falls asleep listening to Bach and clutching a worn t-shirt, it really doesn’t mean anything either.
They walk in silence down the first corridor before John asks, “Did you figure out why it decided to get inside my head?”
Rodney nods. “The Ancients were apparently experimenting—we haven’t come across any other ZPMs like this one. Near as we can surmise, they outfitted this model with a sub-space transmitter. When the ZPM reached a certain level of depletion, it triggered a signal that would alert the nearest Ancient gene carrier.”
“ZPM phone home?”
“More like a maintenance call, but yeah. Basically.”
“So I was nothing more than a ZPM repairman? That’s a hell of a paging system they’ve got.” John still sounds tired, but Carson’s assured all of them there were no residual effects. The other gene carriers never experienced anything more than mild headaches and minor visual disturbances.
“It’s kind of like those old models of cordless phones that used to call 911 when their batteries were dying.”
“I thought that was an urban legend,” John says suspiciously.
“So was Atlantis.”
When they reach the transporter, Rodney moves to press the location nearest the labs, but John catches his hand.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve been avoiding me.”
Rodney glances away. He knows everything he feels shows on his face, and he doesn’t want to have this conversation with John now. Possibly ever.
“Look,” John says, letting out a breath. “I know things got kind of … well, crazy. I couldn’t have gotten through that without you, and I just wanted to say—”
“You’re welcome,” Rodney cuts him off, feeling embarrassed. He tugs his hand free from John’s grip and hits the transporter pad blindly. He isn’t entirely surprised when the door slides open onto the residential wing.
“Fine. We’ll do this the hard way. Your quarters,” John says, taking the lead, and Rodney considers stepping back into the transporter and escaping, but he knows John would only track him down in the labs. Better to have this conversation in private if they have to have it at all. Rodney really doesn’t want to hear the “I appreciate what you did, but it can never happen again” talk.
They’re barely inside when John presses Rodney against the door, arms tight on his biceps, hazel eyes flashing green in anger. “Is that really what you think of me? That I would use you, use our friendship, and just walk away?”
Rodney’s words are caught in his throat. He’s seen John angry before, but not like this.
“I was going out of my mind, and you were the only thing keeping me sane. When you touched me, I could forget everything else, block out the sound and the light.”
“I was a distraction,” Rodney says, and the bitterness is coming through loud and clear.
“Yes,” John agrees, and Rodney feels his stomach clench. He pushes back into the door, hating that there’s nowhere to run. Then Sheppard’s hand is cupping his face, firmly, and he’s shaking his head. “But that’s not all you were, Rodney. It was never just that.”
John leans in and kisses him, lips gentle and uncertain. Rodney kisses him back, never taking his eyes from John’s. “Are you sure?”
“Are you sure you weren’t just taking one for the team? Letting me have what I needed when you really didn’t want it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rodney says, slipping his arms around John’s waist. “Who wouldn’t want you?”
John rolls his eyes, but doesn’t resist when Rodney kisses him, mouths exploring one another in slow, tender caresses.
“You know,” Rodney whispers in between kisses. “With all the work I’ve got to do, I could really use a distraction now and again.”
“I think that can be arranged,” John says with a smirk. He slides a hand down Rodney’s chest, fingers slipping into the waistband of his pants. “That can definitely be arranged.”